Zahra Airall – “The Looking Glass” – Short Story – (Antigua and Barbuda)

There was a time when innocence was filled with rainbow bursts of laughter that echoed through empty rooms, and dances took place in the looking glass. The sun kissed the tops of children’s heads, bobbing in and out of the water, and the leaves hugged the little bodies that hid amongst them, high above the ground. It was within these days that Alice was any boy or girl, and the looking glass was no further than the imagination. The imagination was the looking glass and happiness was its game … and it was perfect.

But their looking glass shattered – each piece landing on the surface with a resounding wail, shrieking in pain the death of their innocence. Each fragment lost its colour, and the memories of laughing children were brutally replaced by tears, of … of … well, they were no longer children, but broken, like the shards. They were replaced by broken shards, and there remained, trapped, in fragments.

For years, the questions hung, like ghostly figures attached to the soul, growing heavier and heavier, with no priest to exorcise them; for they could not believe that which they could not see. They, who could do, did nothing, and those who knew, said nothing. It was like dust, swept under that part of the bed no one visits. It stays there, accumulating, though forgotten, until one day, the bed is moved, and layers of dirt, nasty dirt, particles of animals, and discarded skin cells lie in an ugly undeniable heap in that dark corner, beneath the bed that no one visits. And even after the Clorox and Fabuluso have been applied, the stain remains – hidden beneath the bed, but permanent.

And while their little bodies would not remain permanent, their memories would.

***

LAURIE

I apply layers

One for the office

One for the ‘boys’

One for the ‘girls’

And one more for the world

I apply more layers

Pushing my head through my silken blouse of suppression

My arms easily slide into the sleeves of oppression

And I pull my well pressed pants over my undergarments of shame

I apply layers

Hoping the outside world will never see me

know me

judge me

But most of all

I hope I will never see me …

     Placing one slender, manicured tip on the backspace key, she erased every word, every trace of what she’d been feeling. It was four in the afternoon, and Laurie was beginning to feel suffocated. She needed this meeting to end. The only consolation was that she’d chosen a seat with her back against the wall, so her screen was not easily seen. Today was not her day to present, nor did she have the energy to rebut the statements being made, so she blindly allowed her mind to wander – a dangerous pastime.

     She could feel their eyes rubbing the material off her skin, and looked up in time to see the executive from Maryland licking his lips in that, “can’t wait to devour you” demeanour some men seem to get. He realised she’d caught him staring, and was not the least bit embarrassed. If anything, he seemed more determined to entrap her in a stare contest. To this challenge, Laurie did not back down. She glared at him, narrowing her eyes, to meet him, to show him that if needs be, she could be a bigger alpha male than he.

     He blinked just as the presenter from Canada called on him to comment. “Maryland” recovered from his distraction and the meeting continued. It wasn’t that he wasn’t handsome, or intelligent. She could gather that general information from just googling him and his achievements. In fact, the junior officers in her workplace had ogled him and declared their desire towards him, wishing they could trade places with Laurie.

     And it wasn’t even that she had moral restrictions against flings. Had she been a different woman, at a different time, she might have considered having fun with him.

     The truth was, she was just not interested in men.

     And as her mind began to wander again, the familiar voice returned, like a raspy whisper: Dem woman dey fuh bun. Bun me tell yuh. Dem nuh good.*

     If she did not harness her thoughts, she’d burn.

     Deep within, Laurie knew she was already burnt.

*Those women should be burnt, burn I tell you. They’re not good.

***

DAMON

     “Look he dey,” one shouted.

     Keeping his head straight, eyes fixed on the end of the road, Damon walked on.

     “Pssssssssssst,” they mused at him. Raising the volume of their cat calls, he could no longer distinguish one voice from the other.

     “Sssisaaah,” they slurred and hissed. He could tell one or two, maybe all, were drunk. But it wasn’t until they’d cornered him, that that theory, that ounce of justifiable understanding vanished as quickly as his weave.

     Damon screamed in agony, as he felt the threads of his weave rip away. He tried to run, but it was useless. It was only one of him and six of them – the story of his life. He knew the routine and accepted it. He was in the minority and he accepted it. Over the years, he’d learned to fill his head with that musical, his life’s soundtrack playing at dangerous decibels, as he took his mind to another place. Slipping down a rabbit hole of despair, he began his journey as one of the men’s right fist found his jaw on the left. Further he slipped, as another sole was driven into the small of his back, forcing him to his knees.

     They laughed louder and one dropped his pants, slapping his manhood in Damon’s face. He held his whimper in, as he dared not part his lips. Squeezing his eyes even harder, he forced himself to plummet faster into his rabbit hole, just as another fist met his right eye. His eye throbbed in the socket, as he was pushed on the ground. The dirt was cool beneath his skin, but it tasted like stale urine and rat faeces. He was not prepared for what same next, as they ripped down his tights. He had not wanted to give them the pleasure of releasing any sounds from his body. But this time, he could not contain the yelps that rose in succession.

     He’d finally reached the end of his rabbit hole, and he walked gingerly into his world. Dressed in white lace, he lowered the parasol from above his head and looked up at the sun. It glowed, smiling at him, as it sprinkled the pond with its crystals. Damon smiled, closed his eyes and allowed the sun to kiss him once again. Walking further into the garden, a cluster of butterflies danced around his body, tickling him as he walked further along the path. Then he saw her, his mother …

In another world,

I am me

And me is perfect

In another world

I am she

And she is perfect

In another world

My laughter is real

and tears are fables

told of unhappy children

without mothers

tears of unhappy children

without mothers

butterflies surround us

each winged creature holding the souls

souls of the lost children

In another world,

I am a lost child

In another world,

I cannot find my mother….

     He wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying there – half naked, face down, in the urine stained dirt. Rising his head slowly, Damon looked around. They were gone. As he tried to move, he could feel the pain shoot through him, and he was wet. Turning on his side, he saw the pipe, decorated with specks of skin and blood. His blood. He let the tears flow just then. He was tired, and it made no sense calling the police. They’d only laugh at him and tell him he’d deserved it.

     Leaning his back against the brick wall of the alley, he pulled his knees under his chin and shook. He heaved and allowed the pain to take full control of his body. He was alone, and that hurt even more. He wished he’d stayed unconscious, maybe if he had he might have been able to finally see the face of the woman who’d been haunting his dreams, his fantasies. Maybe if he’d been stronger he might have been able to fight them off. Maybe if he’d had the nerve to pull the trigger he might stay forever in that other world, journey the rabbit hole one last time, and stay with that woman, his faceless mother.

Maybe …

***

LAURIE

red stained lips

pouting

calling

tempting…

long, lush lashes

black

thick

tempting …

smooth legs

go on forever

gates to a personal heaven

tempting …

locks of hair

like thick, woven strands of rope

cascade her back

strong,

black,

tempting…

she

is

tempting …

me?

             She awoke with a start. It was the same dream she’d had for weeks. On long days, Laurie would almost have herself believe that she wanted to do nothing more than lie beneath her sheets and drift off to meet that woman. Then she’d have the dream and awake terrified.

             Again, her mother’s voice, returned to her, steely, cold, final:

                Yuh goin’ burn in hell! Jus’ like Sodom an’ Gomorrah!

   Burn!

   Woman who lub other woman nuh be no woman of God!

   If yuh like other woman yuh dutty, spawn o’ Satan!

   De Devil’s child! Not my child!

   De Devil’s child!

Laurie shook the voice from her head as she climbed out of bed. She stretched and began her routine. Bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, living room, garage, leave for the office. It was Saturday, and she worked feverishly til six in the afternoon. Seemed like she was working all the time now, putting in even more hours than before. She didn’t smoke, not even weed; and she didn’t drink. She tried not to harbour close relations – male or female, so she worked so she’d not give into temptation.

She turned on the radio and Shirley Murdock’s voice filled her SUV as she drove home. It took her back to another time, another place. It’s morning , and we slept the night away …

They’d met at a conference in Mexico, she was from Dominica, and Laurie was instantly drawn to that thick French accent when Marie spoke. She was a striking beauty. Laurie suddenly found herself hot and bothered by the presence of this woman. Marie’s skin was a smooth river of blackness that flowed to a temple where rich, thick, dread locks flowed, creating cascading waves with each movement. That first morning, she’d worn half pinned up, and let them flow along her back, all the way to her hips. Her pants suit had served to only emphasise the roundness of her hips and behind, it wasn’t hip-hugging, but not even a loose pair of slacks could deny the woman’s natural shape.

Laurie watched her lips form each word, each syllable and felt something within her stir. This was not just lust. This was love … at first sight no less. She’d never felt so overwhelmed. And as Marie concluded her report on Risk Management in the Caribbean, Laurie was convinced that the woman could do no wrong.

They’d ended up sitting next to each other during the lunch break, and the conversation began. Laurie had never been one to make the first move, nor had she ever thought about it. She was reserved and she knew that these feelings were better suited towards a man. Yet she could not deny the excitement she felt as Marie slid into the bench next to her and told her hi.

Determined not to let her thoughts escape, she engaged in intellectual conversation, kept her tone professional and discussed emerging issues in finance and accounting. Laurie thought she’d played it off perfectly and just as her pulse was returning to normal, Marie placed a soft hand on Laurie’s wrist, leaned over (oh, she’d smelled so good, like lavender and honey), and invited Laurie for drinks later that night, “away from all these stiffs.”

The woman was even more beautiful outside her professional attire, and she’d chosen to let her locks hang loosely. Marie stepped out from the elevator like a celebrity in a Hollywood movie, and it might have been her imagination married to her fantasies, but Laurie was sure a gust of wind travelled through the lobby at that same moment, causing the white linen dress to twirl around Marie like clouds surrounding the gentle glide of an angel. Her locks bounced as she hurried her pace and made her way over to the bar where Laurie sat. Her laugh filled the air, and before the night was over, Laurie’s laughter had risen a few notches, and she’d laughed until her stomach hurt and tears ran down her cheek.

“You’re so beautiful when you laugh,” Marie told her, stroking Laurie’s cheek with hand. “You should laugh more, darling.”

***

DAMON

He’d sometimes wondered if his life might have been easier if he were born a woman. His hormone therapy had worked, but it didn’t seem to make a difference, not all the time anyway. Although, he had to admit, he did take some pleasure in a man’s embarrassment, who’d mistaken him for a woman. At least they thought he looked like a woman … from a distance.

Damon couldn’t say that he was trying to run from his past – although, initially, he did think that he’d run towards the opposite sex. He couldn’t even say that he was trying to heal, or was he? All he knew is that he desperately wanted to look like a woman, he wanted to be treated like a woman. He wanted a man to look at him and think he was beautiful.

Lost in thought as he sat at the Casino, the bartender placed a glass of wine in front of him. “It’s from the man over there.” The bartender did not scorn him or give the slightest inkling that he was disgusted. Damon supposed that being a bartender at a bar in a high traffic tourist area, the man had seen and served it all.

Damon looked up, just as the man was smiling at him. Mid-forties or maybe fifties with slicked back hair, a bushy moustache, and a nice build. You could tell he took care of himself. The man came over, and Damon tensed. He was unsure what would happen, and he was not in the mood to be brutalised tonight. He just wanted to relax. Two of his girlfriends should have been meeting them, but they’d gotten called by their lovers.

“Haven’t seen you around here much,” the man started, “I must say, I find it hard not to stare.”

Here it comes, thought Damon. He smiled politely as he prepared himself for another “antiman*” remark.

“You have very sad eyes, but your lips are so striking, they look like they were made to laugh .”

Damon stopped in his tracks. He had not anticipated that response. The man, Jeremiah, had a slight accent, was on a long vacation in Antigua, and was apparently attracted to “his kind”. Said he found them intriguing. They spoke all night, and Damon found himself relaxing in the company of this stranger, and laughing more than he had in, well, he had no idea when he’d laughed that much.

Jeremiah caressed his hand as they spoke, and Damon revelled in the attention, blushing at the man’s remarks. He was enjoying himself, and no one was there to make fun of him. There were no cat calls, hissing or fists. Just good conversation, gentle touches and appreciation. Even if they parted ways that night, at least Damon knew he’d part knowing it was possible to have someone enjoy him … for who he is.

*antiman – homosexual male, an insult

***

LAURIE

The night had taken them dancing, and for one night, Laurie allowed the music, the drinks and the ambience of the Mexican sunset to silence the voice in her head as her body felt every sensation there was to feel.

Marie’s laughter filled the room, atop the music, and Laurie squeezed the woman’s hand even harder as they twirled through the rhythm of the night. She couldn’t recall when they’d arrived at Marie’s room, nor could she recall how she’d become undressed. And even though the details of the night remained a slight blur, her body had recorded every gentle touch, each sweet caress, and the accented kiss still lingered on her lips. Laurie, inhaled and slowly turned on her side to a swirl of thick, black coils. Marie was the most beautiful Medusa one could conjure, and she, Laurie, had been seduced by the myth of this woman, and for a moment, she genuinely wished the woman had turned her to stone.

For the remainder of the week, they met for drinks, retired in Marie’s room, and Laurie would quietly slip out of her room before the sun took its place in the sky, hoping that no one would see her. She found herself growing all the more annoyed with the Maryland gentleman who continued to ogle her, and she desperately wished these boring accountants would speed through the meetings so she could dive into the Mexican spell of her Dominican lover.

Marie had awakened a passion in Laurie, and she enjoyed the person she became when she was near this woman. She enjoyed the person Marie unleashed within her. There were no social rules to follow, no protocol to observe, and no men. That was the best part – no men.

It was their final night, and Laurie was almost tempted to beg Marie to stay on another week, just the two of them. She began making fantastic plans in her head – she’d fly to Dominica at least once a week to be with Marie; they could go on a cruise, maybe a Mediterranean one; she may even consider looking for a position in Dominica so they could be together, she knew no one but Marie there, and would fit into Marie’s world; she’d move in to-

“I’m getting married in a month.”

The words sliced through her new dreams, cutting more than her fantasies.

“What?” Laurie could neither conceal nor deny both the confusion and betrayal she felt.

“I’d love for you to be there moi Cherie,” she whispered, caressing the unruly strands of Laurie’s hair that fell across her face.

Laurie bolted up. “You’re getting married? But I thought you were a …” the unspoken words hung in the air; she could not bring herself to say … what exactly? Homosexual? Lesbian? Those words seemed so ugly against the beautiful creature that lay next to her, turning her new found world upside down.

Laurie never gave Marie a chance to explain. She gathered her things, and left the room, Marie, and their … tryst? There would be no calls, no emails, no visits.

She returned to Antigua the following day, and forced herself to bury Marie, the way she’d buried ….

***

where were you when

ghosts came

where were you then

when bloodsuckers knocked on doors

i was afraid

and you laughed

i was scared

and you turned your back

i needed you

and you were gone

who was there to hear me pray

i prayed hard for someone to come

but no one came

no father, no mother

no apparition dressed in white

no angel, no fairy

no ancestor

no Jesus, no God

no one

came

not a one

heard my prayer

no one came to save me

from the ghosts

from dark corners

from thick voices

that wait for little ones in

dark corners

like blood suckers preying

but it’s innocence they suck

while the innocent continue to pray.

***

DAMON

Damon would wake with a start wondering if it were all a dream, but then he’d hear Jeremiah’s gentle breathing. He looked at this man, this man who had come into his life and renewed it. His eyes were still damp from last night’s revelation.

It had taken this man, this beautiful spirit, to unravel the thick, scarred, and burnt layers of pain that were tightly wrapped around Damon’s soul. And in the shadows of the moon, Damon allowed himself a freedom he’d never before experienced. He cried openly, and no one laughed at him. And when he needed to be held, Jeremiah held him. He held him fiercely, yet with such gentleness, that Damon lost all sense and sensibility as his tears rushed into a force of passion that had been buried for so many years. He bawled in the arms of this man, spasms shaking his grown, altered body, as he cried for his pain, and he cried for the little boy, who almost 20 years ago had had no one to hold him, and sooth his fears away. He cried again for the little boy who was lost, alone and lay bloodied, dirty, and broken in a crumpled pile of stained innocence.

Damon was not prepared for the memories that flooded him like his tears.

He was nine again, playing on the floor of his bedroom with his blocks and cars. He could hear the movement of people in the distance, and then the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs, growing louder as they made their way to his room. His door swung open, and four men he’d never met, but had occasionally seen, made slow, steady strides into the room. His uncle stood there looking at him.

He knew that stare – it was the same stare he’d given Damon the day he came to live there. The same smile Damon received the first night his uncle opened his bedroom door and crept into bed with him. And it was the same smile he received as the signal to go to bed, undress and wait.

But Damon was confused. At first, he’d thought that the men in suits might have come to take him away from his uncle, but as they stared, his uncle laughed something sinister, something sick. And not knowing why, Damon felt the tears began to spill onto his cheek.

That was the first time the rabbit hole had become so pronounced for him. Eventually, the songs of his world had become so loud, his screams were no longer his, but that of another boy, in another world, in another time. It was not Damon who was being pinned. It was not Damon who was being brutally defiled. It was another boy that lay there fighting while his uncle watched on, laughing.

When they finally left, Damon lay lifeless on the floor. His body was not his, and it hurt too much to even cry. He’d prayed, and no one had come to his aid. The faded blue Testament that lay a few feet away had not protected him, and the people who said Jesus loves children the best had not met his Uncle.

“It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.” The voice repeated, penetrating his memories, pulling him from his rabbit hole, from his dark corner. The voice held him so tightly – it was a strong voice, and for a moment, Damon wondered if that was how Jesus sounded when he spoke.

Damon, the boy, had finally drifted off to sleep, a sound, undisturbed sleep with no fear of creaking doors, sinister laughs, and no ghosts.

Damon, the man, finally allowed himself to be drained of the child, and felt himself go loose in the arms of his lover who held him as he slept.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

***

LAURIE

        Shirley Murdock’s voice faded out, and with it, the memories of another woman, another place. She was not ready to go home. She’d been tempted to call Marie so many times, but pride would not let her.

        At the office, she was sure someone had heard something, and Marie’s messages and calls did not help the paranoia that was building. Laurie could feel her secretary give her the “eye” whenever Marie called, and she’d signal to her to dismiss the woman. But Laurie had made it very clear how she felt about homosexual relations of any sort, and her colleagues, especially her secretary, knew better than to make idle chatter of such assumptions.

        They’d once made the mistake of considering her a “friend” and had begun a conversation that would lead them down roads of idle gossip, and eventually to a valley of insidious assumptions about which woman was doing which woman in the next office, and which woman was eyeing which woman from this office. That was when Laurie had had enough. She made it pellucid that she would not be a part of such discussions, in jest or otherwise. Then she quoted scriptures she’d long forgotten, and caught herself. She was sounding just like her mother.

         Ahhh, her mother. As she turned towards the beach, another memory flooded her. Her mother. She was a woman Laurie wish she could have met, shook hands with, and then forgotten about, like other trivial business associates who came together for a meeting and then would part ways for good. But, she was her mother, and one memory she could not bury with the woman’s bones.

         She parked the car, watched the hues of gold and orange streak the sky. They reminded her of a painting that once hung in the family room of her childhood home, her grandmother’s house. Laurie had lived there with her mother, and eventually, her grandmother’s son moved back in when his wife kicked him out. She enjoyed her uncle’s company. Her mother often called him irresponsible and childish, but it was that childish quality that had allowed him to entertain the likes of an eight-year-old child. He’d take her pond fishing, tree climbing, and to beach. Although he was her only uncle, he was her favourite.

         Then he left. Without word, notice, and not even the trace of a good-bye, he left. And with him, his memories. She could not even feel his presence in the house. Her mother had worked feverishly to rid the place of any remnants. But Laurie had held on to an old shirt that had fallen behind his bed. It still had the faintest hint of his odour – sweat, sweet, and mango juice. The stains from the mangoes were faded but still present, and it was this old, stained shirt that Laurie hugged at night.

         She was also hugging it the day He moved into the house. Her mother’s lover was an ugly stump of a man, and it was not until she was older that Laurie could understand what her mother loved about him and why her grandmother had allowed this atrocity to move into her Christian home. He was ugly indeed, but he worked for “good money” and she’d “need tings dat ah can’t give you … so mind him”. This is what she’d be told at every incident – she spoke too loudly; she wanted too much food; she didn’t wash clothes; she only played – and the list would continue until, at age 10, Laurie had become almost mute, only answering when spoken to, and doing as she was told. She’d become their personal robot.

          She was still clinging to her uncle’s shirt when He crept into her room that night. And she almost tore it, as He tore into her. But she continued to do as she was told – nighty rolled up; mouth shut; don’t tell no body or else …

          Even when her mother walked in on them, He was quick to lavish her mother with slanders of Laurie’s seduction, having been drunk, and thinking that this child could have been a grown woman. Even though she was 12 then, her body – dangly, flat and long – could not have been mistaken for her mothers double D’s, wide hips, and short frame.

          Yet, her mother swallowed every word as she swallowed the expensive dinner He bought her the following night. Her mother continued to wear the delusions He dressed Laurie in, as she wore the Gucci, and Prada He bought her from the expensive stores. And just as she continued to wear those rich leather shoes with the oh-so-high heels to stomp on her co-workers’ lesser fortunes, so her mother continued to stomp on Laurie’s innocence, that He’d purchased.

          And even at age 15, when Laurie finally mustered the courage to stab him in the testicles with her scissors from sewing class, she still clung to her uncle’s faded, worn and stained shirt. Like him, she left with no word, no hint, and no trace of a good bye. Her mother never looked for her. Not to Laurie’s knowledge anyway. Then she’d met Cassie. Laurie’d moved in with her Pastor and his wife, and their daughter Cassie.

          Cassie was older, mature, and wore her hair natural. She was beautiful and was not afraid to voice her annoyances at her parents and their “religious brigade”. Cassie did not attend church. She did not care for it really. And Cassie, did not like men either. No one had every “hurt” her, not like He had done to Laurie. Cassie just did not like men. But women? Women she found to be beautiful and under-appreciated, they should be revered and praised, that’s what should be preached.

           And the first time Cassie kissed her, she felt neither dirty nor ashamed. She was not confused nor was she afraid. It felt right.

           Cassie made her feel beautiful, and was never forceful or invasive. She was just right … for her.

           Laurie could not wait to get home in the afternoons when it would be just her and her Cassie. Cassie had become her ray of hope, and made the world seem so much better. Those few precious hours in the afternoons before the pastor or his wife arrived home were a delicious haven from the brutal realities of Laurie’s life. They spoke, laughed, shared dreams and personal philosophies and love. It was right.

           “Wha de hell is this?!”

The shriek pierced her world and Laurie watched the pieces of her peace fall with each tear. The pastor’s wife was home, and to say she was livid would be mild. Stunned into paralysis, she watched the woman grab Cassie by her loud, thick afro and drag her into the bedroom. The door locked, and all Laurie could hear were yelps of indescribable pain. Darkness ascended on the house, and Laurie cowered in the corner. It was all her fault.

The next day, Cassie left the house. Her Afro had been shortened, and her sleeves did not succeed in covering all the burns the pastor’s wife had left on her beautiful black skin. Laurie wanted to run to Cassie. She wanted to take that pain away. But the pastor’s wife stood in the door way to her freedom.

“I know is not your fault,” she began. “That girl jus’ belong to the Devil. I don’t know why she didn’t stay where she was. I hope yuh not like her!”

Laurie just stood there as the pastor’s wife flung missile after missile of Bible verses at her, each one wounding deeper than the first. She just stood there saying nothing at all. If God existed, as this woman so devoutly proclaimed, then why did He allow Him to come into her life? And why would He take Cassie out of it? It made no sense to her.

The pastor’s wife’s voice continued to rise decibels above Laurie’s day dreaming and thoughts. Tried as hard as she might to block the woman’s ranting, she could not block her words:Dem woman dey fuh bun. Bun me tell yuh. Dem nuh good.”

Night’s cloak quickly swept away the streaks of the beautiful sunset, and with the darkness covering her, Laurie could not help but think, that no matter the age, she was burning in a personal hell. She’d never accept the desires within her. She’d never return Marie’s calls. And she’d probably never find love.

DAMON

and if ever life was real

it was with you, my love

and if ever lies were true

it was when I lie next to you

and if ever we were to cheat

it was when we cheated life

if ever there was truth

it was the truth we created between us two

us two

me

and you

my love

my love

my prince,

my king

my all ….

       Jeremiah left Antigua two months later. But for the three months Damon spent with him, he gained a certain confidence, a certainty that he was not wrong. He belonged. Jeremiah had held his hand as they strolled the streets of St. John’s. Against astonished stares, Christians blasting through their blow horns on street corners, and school children snickering, Jeremiah had held his hand.

       The day he left, Damon was neither sad nor scared. He felt empowered. This man had given him a divine restoration that Damon had needed. In the three months, Damon had not travelled his rabbit hole; there was no need for it. Nor had he dreamt of his mother. He no longer experienced that emptiness.

       That night, as he lay naked in bed, his hormone-enhanced breasts feeling the cool blast of his fan, Damon exhaled. He traced his hand along the impression of Jeremiah’s body, now returned to his home, and he exhaled. Closing his eyes, he forced sleep to come to him, as a new excitement brewed within. He could not wait to face tomorrow, and he was ready to whatever “they” would throw at him. He was ready.

ready to be me

ready to be free

of all o’ this

of all the mess

of this life

ready to be me

ready to be free….

      Damon smiled, as he awoke the next morning. He slipped into a beige slacks, pinned his white lace bra, and slipped on the white blouse Jeremiah had purchased for him. He leaned over the sink, and carefully brushed gold layers across his eyes. With care, he brushed his lashes with the mascara, then pressed the plum stained brush tip to his lips. He leaned back, looked in the mirror, and smiled.

      He was pleased. He was ready.

Zahra I Airall was born and still resides in the Caribbean island of Antigua and Barbuda. She is a literature teacher at a secondary all-girls school, founder of Zee’s Youth Theatre, and co-founder of August Rush Productions, a small company dedicated to the discovery, development and promotions of the literary and performing arts in Antigua and Barbuda. An activist for women’s and chidlren’s rights, she is a founder and an  executive member of the non-profit organisation Women Of Antigua, a group formed when her island was experiencing its first serial rapist. She is also the co-director and producer of When A Woman Moans a local production that uses the performing arts to speak out against violence against women and children. She is also a spoken word artiste, free lance journalist, and photographer.

Lawrence Scott – “Chameleon” – Short Story (Trinidad and Tobago / United Kingdom)

Chameleon

Monty was born in a large old colonial house in the town of Villahermosa near Merida, through which the Magdalena seeped, muddy and clogged with waterlilies. It was a town inhabited by tall men, renowned for its generals and young men who were trained to be generals because their fathers wanted it to be so. Monty’s father had wanted to be a general. He admired Sir Winston Churchill in England and he had wanted Monty to be a general one day too.

But he himself never became a general, but continued all his life to dream of becoming one. When Monty was born, at his baptism he was named after General Montgomery – Monty, the desert rat – for which a special dispensation had to be granted by the Pope in Rome through the Apostolic Nuncio in Caracas. His mother would have liked to have christened him Jesus.

The little boy grew, but he was pale. His legs were thin and cold like a lizard’s which made him seek the naked stones in the sun to warm his cold reptilian skin. ‘Come, Monty, sit in the sun, his mother Emelda called. Sit by the geraniums.’ The boy turned and smiled at his mother as he sat next to the pot of red geraniums.

But when his lather saw him he said, `Straighten your back.’ This was something that his father would often say. Monty got up and stood like a little Napoleon with his hands behind his back and looked out over the plain below the walled town of Villahermosa towards the Magdalena whose source was in the Andean foothills. ‘Now walk like a man,’ his father said. In the end his father relented.

The thin-legged lizard showed no signs of becoming the kind of boy who would one day be the kind of man who would become a general, though each day his father told him to straighten his back and to walk like a man.

Monty learnt to play the harp at Senor Figuera’s, an old man who at the time of the civil war had not wanted to be a soldier or become a general, but preferred to sew and to be a tailor. Playing the harp had been passed down in Senor Figuera’s family and he decided to pass it on to Monty because he had never married and had no sons. ‘Send him after school,’ he told Emelda. ‘I will teach him to pluck the harp.’ Monty learnt to play the harp well because it was a serious business for Senor Figuera. He also learnt to play the cuatro and could play a joropo and an aguanaldo and he even learnt to play the rumba and samba which came up the rivers on the barges with the travelling black musicians and circus people from Brazil and Colombia.

Monty, with his long lingers for plucking the harp, grew to have long legs; thin long legs which he still used to lay out in the sun on the naked stones near the pots of red geraniums even though he was now sixteen and his father’s impatience with his undeveloping physique was now irreversible. Instead, he was turning his attention to his young nephew to see if he would fulfil his dream of becoming a general.

However, it had been some years before this final turning away that there was an occasion of much greater disappointment for Monty’s father.

At one end of the patio of the large old colonial house there was a trellis of white lattice-work through whose filigree lacy shadows played on the stone floor. This was particularly true at siesta-time when the house was completely silent and the heat sizzled outside and there was a scherzo of lizards among the dry almond leaves. If you were standing on the verandah, looking out over the plain of Villahermosa, you would not have been able to see the Magdalena because of the blinding glare. The only sound was the cry of the cigale calling for rain, and the lizards, ‘In this vale of tears, this lacrimarum valle,’ as Emelda was accustomed to repeat.

Monty had kept the secret before his First Communion which took place when he was seven years old and the parish priest Father Rosario thought that he had truly arrived at the age of reason and could distinguish between good and evil.

When he was six Emelda allowed him to take his siesta on the patio in the hammock which hung between two banyan trees. He had been afraid of the dark in the shuttered room, and of the web of the mosquito-net. Monty never muttered a word, not even to his nurse Ernestina who together with Emelda looked after the boy and would leave him alone to sleep when she had seen him dozing safely in the hammock. ‘Now sleep my Montyquito,’ she whispered as she tiptoed into the house.

When it first happened it seemed like a dream, partly caused by the strange unreality created by the peculiar silence of the siesta- time, the heat which turned the head and the glare which mesmerised the eyes. The day Monty first told me his tale he said that it had been the sound of splashing water which had first alerted him; splashing as it were into the basin of a fountain over and over again with the same force and regularity (like the fountain in the middle of the square at the centre of Villahermosa), but he admitted that these associations must have most certainly been created by the madness of the siesta. I remember now that when he first told me the tale we had been sitting in the botanical gardens and there had indeed been a fountain playing in the dip near the bougainvillaea arbour, and at the time he had pointed to it in recognition. Also, it had been siesta time, but we were not asleep because it was now a different culture in a different place. This was the island of La Trinidad off the mainland, where the British had ruled for so long bringing their cold habits.

While I wonder about these things now, I didn’t at the time.

He was awakened from his six-year-old slumber by the sound of water splashing over and over again, so that hardly had it awakened him, than it seemed to he hushing him back to sleep again. This was how he had begun his story. What seemed to be a kind of regularity stopped and it was this sudden change which eventually startled him and made him sit up in the hammock more alert than usual. He then slipped out of the hammock and stumbled in his cotton chemise towards the sound of splashing water which seemed to be coming from behind the trellis of white lattice-work. He walked over the lacy shadows which fell from the filigree on to the stone floor.

This trellis of white lattice-work was an unusual feature of the old colonial house which had been in the Monagas family since fifty years before Emancipation. It was unusual because it was a break in the quadrangle of the patio and was in effect a window into the patio of the neighbouring old family house.

Monty pulled himself up on to the edge of the geranium pots and tried to peep through the diamond~shaped lattice. His small fingers gripped where the old paint crumbled. Monty held fast and stared at the little girl Bernadetta who was sitting in a metal bathtub and pouring water over her head and over her naked body with a calabash. Then he became embarrassed and got down off his perch and went back to the hammock and tried to keep his eyes shut.

He said that it happened like this for years. It happened every day for six years and then it stopped abruptly on Bernadetta’s twelfth birthday. Every day for six years he would pretend to sleep at siesta-time, when Ernestina thought that he was dozing safely in the hammock, but instead he would climb up on to the geranium pots and peep through the latticework at Bernadetta.

Bernadetta was no stranger to Monty. Indeed, they had grown up together and had been taken for walks along the walls of the town by their nurses after siesta-time when the sun had gone down. They had played as small children do, innocently. But, now, some new sensation (he called it that when he first told me the story), some new feeling stirred in him because of the clandestine nature of the experience, peeping through the lattice-work, standing on the edge of the geranium pot. Yet, on the other hand, his peeping had been an act of innocence, He felt it to be so at the time and still did now many years later, though he could see the possibility of an alternative interpretation. He was then only six years old, and when it stopped, twelve or fourteen. He could never quite remember how much older he was than Bernadetta. He could have called to her, but he did not and he never told her and kept it a secret always.

At the end of our first meeting Monty insinuated that the naked Bernadetta was only part of the secret and that if he felt eventually he could trust me, he would tell me the rest of the tale. Clearly, there had been the initial curiosity of the small boy in the naked body of the little girl, but in the end it was not the young girl’s nakedness which continued to fascinate the young Monty.

As she grew older, Bernadetta, thinking that she was entirely on her own, would spend time dressing slowly after bathing: towelling, powdering and massaging her body with eucalyptus oil. She used to hang her petticoat and dress over a small bush which was in the sun. Monty would lie in the hammock until he heard the splashing of the water stop and then he knew that she would soon begin dressing. He stared in wonder as she slipped on her silk petticoat and pulled on her crinoline which had been lying on the grass ruffled like the petals of a wild white hibiscus, Then she would pull her dress over her head, put her arms into the sleeves and then fluff the skirt out making it stick out like a star. He loved it when she then twirled around and laughed to herself, throwing back her head and looking up into the frangipani tree blossoming over her, golden and white. Monty ducked at this moment, in case, looking up, her eyes might fall on him peeping through the lattice.

This was all there was to it, he insisted. I did not press him any further, but I did not at the time believe him and felt that there was some other dénouement to the tale of the little boy whom they called Lizard and whose lather had wanted him to be a general. I believed that with time and trust he would tell me the rest of the story.

This was all there was to it: the meditational trance each siesta as he viewed Bernadetta Montero dress herself after bathing in the silence of the siesta.

We had taken to strolling opposite ‘Mille Fleurs’, the house of a thousand flowers, where there was an avenue of yellow poui and where the coconut~sellers and oyster-vendors set up their stalls at night under the flickering flambeaux.

It was the day of Bernadetta’s twelfth birthday and it was an unusually hot day for Villahermosa, and instead of the bedroom shutters being closed, they had been thrown open in frustration by the would-be sleepers who could not rest because of the interminable heat. Monty could have stayed in his room that day, because originally it had been the closed shutters in the daytime which had made him go on to the patio for the siesta because he was frightened. But the habit was now so well-established that no one thought he should change after all these years because of the heatwave.

So as usual Monty lay in his hammock trying to read Cervantes which his mother thought would be good for him. He lay as usual until he heard the splashing of Bernadetta’s bath cease and then he crept as usual to the pot of red geraniums, and because now he was quite tall he didn’t have to stand on the edge of the pots, but could look over the trellis quite easily. And today he noticed particularly the shadow of the filigree which played with his own shadow on the terrazzo floor of the patio.

Because it was her birthday, Bernadetta had a new dress, a birthday dress spread out over the hibiscus hedge. It was white broderie anglaise and the hem and edges of the puffed sleeves were trimmed with red ribbon. He longed to reach out and touch it and pass the satin ribbon through his fingers. He remained silent – as silent as at the moment of Consecration during mass – during the towelling and powdering of Bernadetta’s body: bit his lip in concentration as she played with the dress pressed against her naked body and twirled, pretending to dance and Monty ducked as she threw her eyes up to the canopy of frangipani as she had done every day since she was a little girl and he had first seen her at that very first siesta when she was six or five, when he was frightened and could not sleep behind the closed shutters in the dark and Ernestina had brought him to the hammock and told him to sleep and he had been awakened by the splashing of water as if it were from a fountain. He turned at the sudden crack behind him which he thought was a locust falling from the roof. At that moment, he told me, he remembered that he could hear the distant cry of the cigale, and he thought how good it was that the rain was coming. His father was standing directly behind him. In his concentration he had not felt the older man’s presence. In his meditational trance he had not heard him. The crack was not the crack of a locust falling from the roof, but the crack of his father’ s boot stepping on to a black beetle and breaking its back.

The man who would himself have liked to have been a general and who had long given up hope that this lizard of a son would ever be a general and had pinned his hopes on his younger nephew because he had no other sons, looked past Monty and stared at Bernadetta dancing under the frangipani bush with her white birthday dress pressed against her naked body. He turned away and went to the edge of the patio and looked out over the plain of Villahermosa and strained his eyes to see the Magdalena, but instead had to shade his eyes from the glare.

That evening, as we came to this point in the story, Monty broke off abruptly and said that he would have to go as he had an urgent appointment with a student to whom he was teaching English and that they were reading The History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume 2 : The New World by Sir Winston Churchill.

Later, as I watched him disappear round the corner of Cipriani Boulevard, I smiled as I mused on his reading and felt the oyster from the oyster cocktail slip down my throat.

It was with a certain urgency that I met Monty the following week having had the chance to speculate on where his story might lead. I tried to push Freud to the back of my mind, indeed, to banish him altogether. I did not feel that the doctor of Vienna had a place in the New World and could explain the psychic mythology of a young boy whose dreams were the screams of conquistadorial genocide and whose demons were the lizards of the Galapagos: whose fantasies were in the romantic adornment of a young girl.

Quite unexpectedly Monty invited me back to his small apartment in the old town behind the walls of Lapeyrouse Cemetery. On the way there we talked about the changing town and how some of the balconies still existed at the front of the old town houses which reminded him of Villahermosa and Cartagena where he had been taken every year by his parents for a holiday.

We sat in a small room of the small verandah which was at the top of the low steps just off the pavement and the green moss-furred drain. The old woman from whom he rented the room kept plants and they grew in cut-down kerosene tins painted red and green and stood on the ledge of the wooden verandah. The plants were mostly anthuriums, seed ferns and asparagus fern which climbed the lattice and fell over the front, tangled where it could get a hold.

The room was bare. In one corner was a harp with a stool next to it and on one wall a fairly large family portrait in sepia of a man and a woman sitting on the low wall of the verandah of an old colonial house. The woman had a baby in her arms and standing in the background was a black servant, the baby’s nurse. Monty saw my preoccupation with the portrait and identified the man and woman as his mother and father and the black nurse as Ernestina. The baby was himself. We sipped rum with cubes of ice and talked.

Or rather, Monty talked and I listened. Often he would pick up his cuatro and strum a chord.

I had left with the vivid image of his father’s boot crushing the back of the black beetle on the patio of the house in Villahermosa overlooking the plain and in the hazy distance the River Magdalena. On the other side of the trellis Bernadetta was putting on her birthday dress trimmed with red ribbon. Monty’s father continued to strain his eyes in the glare towards the Magdalena. Then without turning he said, ‘Go to the tamarind tree at the back of the house and pick me a switch.’ Monty did not look at his father but went down the steps and round the back of the house to the back yard where the tamarind tree grew and in whose branches he had played as a small boy. He broke off a thick switch from one of the lower branches and on his way back to the patio cleaned off the twigs and leaves with his penknife. He signalled to me with two fingers joined together to indicate the thickness of the switch.

He told the story methodically now. There were no embellishments. He did not digress to tell me of the cigale, of the River Magdalena, or of the trellis or how the water falling from Bernadetta’s calabash reminded him of the fountain in the middle of Villahermosa. He stood behind his father and waited. He told me that when he recalled this moment, as he had done on many occasions and in many dreams which had found their own metaphors, he remembered that his mind was a black hole of nothing. Again I tried to banish the doctor of Vienna, Thebes, the crossroads, the murder, the plague. This was a new world. Occasionally, he said, there was a ripple of white and red. This tender image was fleeting and did not bring much solace at that precise moment, though it did . subsequently. His father then said, ‘Take off your trousers and bend over. He pulled down the boy’s pants and whipped him sixteen times and then told him to pull up his pants and trousers and go to his room.

At that point I got up and went out on to the little adjoining verandah with the old lady’s anthuriums and seed ferns. I looked out into the silent and empty street. I heard behind me in the room, the harp, plucked twice. I was holding my glass with rum and ice and I brought the glass up to wet my lips, but I did not swallow the alcohol. My throat was tight and I found it difficult to swallow. When I re-entered the room Monty had his back to me: a small back of a slight man caught in the act of plucking the harp for the third time. I sat behind him.

He turned and smiled.

He then got up and came towards me and took my hand. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘come and see. I think I want to show you. I think I can show you. I think I can trust you’. He led me into his bedroom, knelt next to an old chest and lifted the lid, resting the back gently against the concrete wall. ‘Look,’ he said. From the chest he lifted a white broderie anglaise dress, the hem and puffed sleeves trimmed with red ribbon. He handed it to me and began laying out on the floor lingerie, satin scarves, lace handkerchiefs and a white mantilla, ‘Look’ he said, ‘my treasure, my solace.’ I smiled.

‘He whipped me, but he cannot take them away from me,’ he said.

© Lawrence Scott 2012

Previously Published in Ballad for the New World and Other Stories, Heinemann, 1994.

Lawrence Scott

Lawrence Scott is from Trinidad & Tobago. His novel Aelred’s Sin (1998) praised for “the exploration of various possibilities for male relationships” was awarded a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book in Canada and the Caribbean, (1999). His first novel Witchbroom (1992) was short-listed for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (1993), Best First Book. This was followed by Ballad for the New World (1994), including the Tom-Gallon Award prize-winning short-story The House of Funeral’s (1986) His novel, Night Calypso (2004) was also short-listed for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book Award, Long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2006), and translated into French as Calypso de Nuit (2005). It was the One Book One Community choice in 2005 by the National Library of Trinidad & Tobago. His most recent publication is as Editor of Golconda: Our Voices Our Lives, an anthology of oral-histories and other stories and poems from the sugar-belt in Trinidad (UTT Press, 2009) His new novel Light Falling on Bamboo will be published by Tindal Street Press this September, 2012. Over the years, he has combined teaching with writing. He lives in London and Port of Spain, and is at www.lawrencescott.co.uk

Photo Credit : Eugene McConville

Joanne Hillhouse – “Differences” – Poem (Antigua and Barbuda)

Differences

“Is his choice”

He says

Matter of fact

Like the boy deserved to die

For this

Accident of biology

He has that

Implacability

Men of a certain age

(or stubbornness)

Do

Is this what it feels like when your blood boils?

The words want to push out of me

And burn his soul

The boy is dead

I want to scream

If he had kissed

A pretty girl

Instead of another

Randy guy

Would he then

Deserve to live?

“You’re not going to convince me”

He says

So just stop

And I find that I can’t

Suddenly it’s important

To me

That he

Not be like this

Closed off

Judgmental

Hard headed

(like I’m being now, toward him)

I have to find an opening

They betrayed him

I scream

“He chose it”

He insists

To love

I press

To love

Not to be stoned for it

Or have barbed wire

Pulled through his flesh

Or worse yet

Have prying eyes download and dissect

What should have been private

“He chose it”

He insists

Like God willed it

(Not the God I choose to worship; She hugs us all to her bosom)

I tell myself there’s more

More than the science

Of fire and brimstone

If I could just decipher it

Read between his lines

His philosophy is simple after all

Accept life as it is

Don’t weep over it

And don’t let people in your head

And maybe that’s it

That he finds the boy weak

For not stiffening his back

And pushing through

Because to him

Giving in

Is the only real sin

But I look at him

As he sits

Reading the paper

Brow furrowed at politicians

And their antics

While I stand in an island

Blowing smoke

Desperate to have him see that

Death may be life

But it still hurts

That trusting may be stupid

But it is still given in

Hope

Of making a connection

That a boy (or girl) who is different

Is not to be savaged

That our differences are to be cherished

Even in how we stand up to this –

Hurricane or shame

That the shame is not in his choice

To give in

But in their decision to ridicule him

And in our decision to judge him

(and give them a bye!)

And to find each other wanting

For being who we are

Me, him

And the boy

Neither of us knows

© 100110 Joanne C. Hillhouse

Joanne Hillhouse

Joanne C. Hillhouse’s new book Oh Gad! hit the market in 2012. The Antigua-Barbudan writer is also the author of The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. Follow her at http://www.facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse