Fred D'Aguiar



Extract from a novel

I want my green fingers back, bring back, bring back, not these stumps. Touched a seed, tucked it in shallow, muddy ground and it sprouted. Fingers found plants and tried to unlock their remedies. My hands trembled with a heartbeat in every finger. I mapped the flora around El Dorado. If a plant brushed my leg as I hurried from one chore to another — wash this, scrub that, patch such and such with thimble and needle and not much thread or cook something up from nothing — I stooped beside it and scooped some leaves or twigs off it, apologized for the theft and stashed the prize in my apron pocket for study later. Of course later never came so as I stirred a pot I examined leaf and stem, sniffed the trace of balm, tipped my tongue at it for a tittle-tattle taste of paradise. A speck of paradise on my tongue-tip in the green heart of this jungle. If not paradise then what, a burnt tongue from that unknown sap, a rash on my tongue for tickling my curiosity. Because, because, because I cannot help myself. My mother told me to, not to. I held onto the hem of her dress and what she did I told myself I would do, so yes, she told me to, not to. To speak only when spoken to. Not to whistle, only men whistled. To keep an eye, not the spare eye in the back of my head, that was for danger, but one of my two lazy eyes on my body as I girlied myself about the world so that I would always see how I looked to strange eyes, eyes not mine, how much of my skirt was above my knee, how little was left to ride up my thighs.

I died in the jungle, a stone's throw from El Dorado, in the middle of nowhere. I did not die alone but surrounded by the sounds of all the others, many, many others, dying around me, with me, for me, because of me. They died for me just as I died for them and because of them. I left their bodies scattered and heaped all over Smithtown, the small town we raised in his name. I died on my feet. I walked backwards away from that place knowing nothing, not when I spun on my heels to face the right way out of there nor with any feeling for how I walked through jungle that must have tripped and bumped me along, until I came to a river as wide as the sea.

The high tide striated the river, made it resemble bundles of light, falling through bamboo. Light in layers or a ladder, water for rungs, wrung water, water's twisted cloth, bolts of cloth, stacked, tiered, heaped water. It looked so that I could walk on it, climb it and escape the jungle and end up high in the highest current of the water. Buoyed away by pure swaths of light disguised as a high tide. A raft of bones built for light travel. And that was how I walked into the river and walked under it too and had to be plucked out by fishermen who took me for a madwoman because I chuckled or choked or both. Three of them held me down and tied me in one of their nets for fear I might scratch or bite. But I was not laughing. I merely chuckled at the fact that the water deceived me, like everything else about our jungle paradise and made me think I could climb it to some other safer place. My chuckle of recognition, acknowledged an inviolable fact. I was the water but the water was not me. I was the forest but the forest would always remain the forest and have nothing to do with me. I was not in paradise though something of paradise remained hidden in me. Certainly not a laugh as the fishermen thought.

When was it I last laughed? I mean really guffawed until my midriff hurt and I cried? There in the jungle washed by star, moon and insect-light. In Smithtown dropped in the middle of the world's biggest garden. The meeting began late at night as usual - Smith was a night owl, a late riser who seemed afraid to fall asleep. We sat on aluminum folding chairs arranged in two tight rows of ten, twenty rows deep with a corridor between the two sets of rows. Others, mostly children, squatted on tarpaulin or a spare blanket around the edges of the rows of chairs. All of us faced a plinth covered with cloth and furnished minimally with a small round table on which rested a jug of water, a couple of glasses and Smith's much-thumbed, dog-eared bible, and next to the table, a high chair. Smith sat in the high-backed chair and looked too small for it, rather than the grand royalty he meant to simulate. He held a microphone with the stand beside him in case he needed to rest the mike and dry his face and take a drink. Mostly there was someone nearby to take the mike and hand him a towel or glass of water. A large fan placed strategically behind him and slightly to the side kept him cool and guaranteed the front rows of the tent would be filled early to garner some of that free air. Bare bulbs burned on long cords strung throughout the corrugated zinc-roofed structure open to the elements on all sides. A generator drowned the insect noises and competed with the arguments of Tom Smith booming on the P.A. As stars played hide and seek behind clouds, fireflies flicked their lamps on and off. As the P.A. blasted the dark the multitude of night insects going about their business must have taken in a little of what Smith said. Insect-brethren.

He ran his hand through his black hair lifting it off his forehead and slicking the thick, wet mop of it back onto his scalp. He fixed his hard brown eyes on a child seated on the floor with her two siblings and made her squirm. His stare was not vacant but the kind of stare that provided thinking with a framework. He asked her what she thought of her parents who were back in California and agitating to get her, her brother and her sister out of Smithtown. The parents hired lawyers and sent several writs to Georgetown ordering Smith to surrender the three children to the authorities. She was a feisty little thing. I nearly slapped her once as was the habit among adults in their dealings with children at Smithtown, for countermanding my instructions during gardening duty. I kept my arm by my side determined not to be like all the rest. I liked Gina's pluck. Though very thin and short she never failed to hoist up on tiptoe and stick her face into the faces of other children who threatened her. And she willingly gathered plants for me helped by her brother Ben and her sister Clara. Though she was in the middle of them and smallest of the three she ordered both of them around as if she were the eldest. Her sense of herself as the best defender of the family in the absence of her parents persisted though she knew every adult in the Temple was meant to be her new family.

I told her and her brother and sister Anancy the Spiderman stories, as they were told to me by my father, and as I remembered them or failed to in which case I simply made up the lost details. I storied them to keep them at their chores and by my side and therefore out of trouble. They, in turn, went on leaf hunting missions for me and brought back stacks of leaves, most known to me but sometimes a few mysteries turned up. Gina - we used first names, knowing that our last name had to be Smith - took the mike from Tom and barked into it so loudly we sat upright and attended her as if freshened by her appearance when, in fact, each of us was near collapse from working all day and listening to him into the small hours. She seemed about 9 or 10. I say this because exact ages were anathema in Smithtown, gauged roughly by cosmic events or shared calamities with all birth certificates and such proof of citizenship of our former lives burned, shredded or surrendered to Smith and never seen again. I know she had not had her first period and she was spared for this reason from the more arduous chores of womanhood. She held the mike with her right hand and jammed the knuckles of her left hand into her hip. She said about her former parents, "I want to tear them apart, the fuckers. The fucking no-good stirrers. I want to string them up by their fucking heels. Excuse my language, Father," (he nodded for her to proceed), "but I hate those two bitches. They can kiss my ass." She flicked up her dress. She wore nothing under her dress. Her bold gesture brought renewed waves of laughter. "I hope they rot in hell. If they came to get me I would kill them first and then kill myself."

This is where I laughed my loudest. I do not include when I first heard him preach back in California. I cried back then more than I laughed, though it was for joy. This Guyanese jungle setting never rang with so much laughter. If our laughter could harvest fruit the trees would be stripped bare. If our ululating were a season, say the winters back home in the North, then all the land would be covered in snow. I cried with laughter. Everyone howled and clapped and stamped their feet and so the ovation went on long after Gina returned the mike to Tom and resumed her place on the floor next to Ben and Clara.

Tom Smith called her back to the stage to take a bow and he kissed her on both cheeks and told us she was a child but she should be seen as an example by all of what it takes to be a member of this community and one of his followers.

It takes balls, he said, pointing with the mike at little Gina. And it took a child to show us the kind of balls we need to survive in this place and against all our enemies. My laughter would have subsided were it not for this addendum of Smith's — Someone get this child a pair of panties.

This was the last time I really laughed. I am ashamed because I know I laughed for all the wrong reasons. Even as I laughed I knew what should really take the place of laughter I could never show, not in my body. My body could not contain it. I do not mean straightforward tears but a giving over of the body to despair from which there would be no turning back.

In Smithtown no one was allowed to cry without the express permission of Smith. Tears at a funeral, fitting. Tears of joy at the height of his sermons, great. Tears of depression or frustration with camp life, not if you valued your skin. I buried my tears face down in my pillow. Look at us in the night and you might wonder why so many of us spent long periods with our faces pressed into the pillow. I am sure I was not the only one who said into my pillow what could never be uttered within earshot of another person and cried and screamed too.

Smith stood while he made Gina sit on his throne. He picked up where she left off with warnings about insiders who were now outsiders and perhaps more of a threat than any other person, lawyer or government. He defined those persons as most despicable of all Temple enemies. They knew better and turned their backs on wisdom. They learned all there was to know about the beast and opted to support him and work against the Temple. Gina began to nod off on the throne so the nurse shook her and made her re-join her brother and sister in the audience. Smith slumped into the chair and defined lawyers as bloodsuckers, tapeworms, parasites. His speech slurred and he paused for a long time between sentences. He repeated himself and did not seem to know he had said that thing only a moment ago. He repeated it almost verbatim and dwelled on each phrase with the same sense of discovery and revelation.

"A government walks in on us and pretends it cares about us, about how we live but it is here to spy on us, to criticize us, everyone can criticize, and to destroy us. But we will not go away. You hear, that, ears in the night, eyes in the night. A government walks in on us and pretends, pretends it cares. About us. Cares about how we live but it is here to spy on us, to criticize us, everyone can do that, criticize, and it wants to destroy us. But will we go away? No. You hear that, ears on the night, eyes in the ears of the night." He stopped talking and his head drooped until his chin touched his chest and we knew the night was over because he was over for the night. Sleep for him was death in life, hell on earth, his worst tormentors given free reign with him. So he kept his eyes open and kept us up with him until he had to be carried sleeping in his chair to his bed.

Four men shouldered that throne with Smith slumped in it, followed by the nurse and hygienist, both of whom tucked him in. We sat and watched the chair with its precious cargo leave the tent. Only after he was out of sight we moved, scuttled to various sleeping quarters counting on the fingers of one hand how very few hours of darkness remained, how late into the night he talked, so late it was well into the start of another day, and hating the idea of waking before we reached our beds.

We talked about Gina's public outburst for days. It saved her many hours of dull chores and she won a few pairs of decent underwear. Ben and Clara waited on her. That week her name and her brother's and sister's, appeared on the timetable next to mine making me responsible for their personal hygiene. I cut their finger and toe nails, cleaned their ears and combed their hair. I tried to get Gina to deliver a few more nuggets of wisdom but she squirmed and fidgeted like all children subjected to a morning of hair-plaiting and I ended up reprimanding her like all the others. "Keep still, child. How you expect me to tidy your wild head if you keep slipping around like an eel."

"You hurting me."

"If I really hurt you child you would know about it."

To stop myself painting us both into an ugly corner I called her sister and brother over and launched into an Anancy tale. I put aside her night in the spotlight as an aberration.

She remained feisty even when she approached me for a story.

"Do you have any Anancy stories for us today?"

She asked as if I had a store of them on me and it was my duty to give them away before they decomposed because of my neglect and left a bad smell on me. She seemed to think she did me a favor by providing me with a ready and willing audience at no cost to me and at much inconvenience to her going by her folded arms and frown and the slightest trace of a smirk in the corner of her mouth. She was ripe for a slap and when I felt like dishing out a slap to one so young, a common practice here, I knew it was time to conjure Anancy or send her on one of my leaf gathering errands to add to my plant collection. Everyone soon returned to treating Gina like another pair of hands to help me weed the vegetable and herb garden or help reduce the mountain of laundry, dirty dishes and litter. We could not afford to spare her even in her gifted state, the rare gift of talking in the spirit of Smith. We needed even her little hands in Smithtown, to stave off the rain and humidity, always a fight against ever- encroaching vegetation which moved faster than I could study it, or come to grips with weeds, and mud when it rained, or from overnight moisture, omnipresent mud from more wet than dry days and never enough hands around.

We made mud pies. We could have cooked with mud. It inveigled its way into everything. The children wore a film of muddy water, their second skin. When I scraped Ben, Clara and Gina's scalps, mud speckled their shoulders and lodged between the teeth of the comb. I brushed the comb with every five strokes on a scalp or rattled it in a basin of water. The children screeched and squirmed without exception and I launched a story to settle them.

I tasted mud too. We salted and peppered it for a flavor other than its mineral promise. The sun baked it and it cracked like the bottom of our feet and the palms of our hands. It squelched when stepped in and grabbed the ankles as if to keep us in it. Patience mud, you will have us all soon enough, so many of us you won't know what to do with us all, where to put us for safekeeping for another day of feasting on us or how to arrange our countless bones other than in a heap.

The children played in water after a downpour. They stripped bare and flung handfuls of mud at each other. They stopped to catch their breaths only to daub mud on each other and waited around like statues for the mud to dry into a cast on them. Mud people. The mud hardened and resembled ashes. They did not want to crack the mud that encased them so the children walked around straight-legged and with arms stuck out beside them, the ghosts of themselves.

We caught them and wanted to beat them for it, for playing dead. Did they not know how hard we fought to free ourselves of mud? They knew and yet they did this mud dance to show us that they did not care to fight the mud but preferred to join forces with it. We scrubbed them hard until they were raw skin and polished bones once again. Do not tempt fate, I told Gina, and Clara and Ben, who followed her and did her bidding. You cannot toy with Death. And they looked puzzled. What? They asked. What did we do? You are playing with fire. This confused them no end. What fire? Clearly mud was nothing like fire.

Gina understood. I threw her my most fierce look, knitted brows, unblinking eyes and pursed lips. She did not do me the honor of looking sheepish like the others. She hardly blinked. I shouted at her more than I reprimanded her two siblings. My look was an order for her to show me a little fear.

Be respectful of me, Gina, or pay a higher price later on. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Mud on your body is a sign of a corrupt soul. We fight to remove the taste of mud from our mouths, and what do you do? You roll in it. You show us you do not care. We have to walk away from sin, not invite it into our lives.

I wanted to say more, throw in a little science about flesh-eating bacteria and fungus but I stopped myself. I had said too much already. I folded my lips in my mouth and bit on them, tightened them against a spigot of tears. For I heard how much I sounded like one of his sermons and we were full of his sermons, three square meals of them a day and every scrap on our plates chewed thoroughly before we swallowed or else, and every plate spotless. Smith fed and full, brimful and near bursting or face Daddy's wrath.

We needed one example of his iron hand, just one. At one of his marathon evening gatherings Smith asked just about the most elderly man at the Temple, Old John, why he wanted to go to Georgetown. It was long past midnight and we listened in and out of sleeping upright with our eyes open. A few of us held these false poses of attentiveness and leaned unwittingly by degrees until we had to be nudged upright by someone beside us who we fell against or who wished to spare us the embarrassment of having Smith or one of his cohorts shout at us to pay attention.

The mosquito coils dotted everywhere, burned down to the stubs. Moths whittled away at the light bulbs. But even they began to drift away. When the old man stuttered and said he wanted to see the capital of the country that was his new home before he faced his maker, a few of us nodded. We could understand that, the last wish of an ancient man. Old John seemed older than the hills. No one among us had memories that predated his existence. We were positive Smith would grant it and move on to the next request or case. Old John joined Smith from the beginning. Some of us even called him Father, a moniker reserved for Smith. Though crooked in body his long years held out the promise of the durable nature of Smith's teachings; that he, Smith, could retain the loyalty of Old John for so long was a measure of the truth of his message.

But when Smith said to Old John, stooped over with rheumatism and osteoporosis, and who looked up at Smith in a sideways fashion of sticking his chin up, if he would care to tell everyone the real reason why he wanted to go to Georgetown, and not the bullshit excuse of a last rite that might fool some uneducated idiot off the street but was unworthy of an address to his spiritual leader and material provider, a lightning bolt ran through the tent and struck us all to attention.

The old man stooped even more and dropped his chin. Let us hear you, Smith bellowed. And with that Smith sprang from his seat and thrust the mike into Old John's knobbed hand. "Go on," Smith shouted at the top of his voice to compensate for the lack of a mike. He did not seem angry right then only keen to be heard by everyone. Old John's labored breaths boomed over the P.A. He sighed. The trap could not now be evaded. To deny it would be to call Smith a liar; admit to it and he may as well confess to a cardinal sin, that of desertion. We watched him. He seemed even more contorted than before. As he thought through his options each word played on his crumpled spine in jolts of his body. "I can't hear you," Smith bellowed. This must be what it was like to think for yourself rather than have Smith think for you.

I try to think outside of his teachings and I come up with a blank, a sky empty of stars, moon, cloud, birds. I draw blank. No Smith, no me. No Father in my head, no head on my shoulders, just a shell for a brain. His words rise up in me and form clouds in my head. Birds sing his praise. Stars paint the sky. I frame them into sentences and I sound like Father, I stick to Smith, his sounds for my no-sound brain: an opalescent sky at night, a cloud city drifting by. Old John said, Yes, sir, Father, I wanted to go to Georgetown but now I want to stay here. I have everything that I need or could ever want right here. Don't need no other place. No, sir. Made a mistake in my thinking. I slipped up. Sorry, Father.

And with that the old man fell to one knee and lowered his head. Smith jumped off the stage and grabbed the mike from his gnarled hand.

"You slipped up, did you? What do you think would happen to this place if I slipped up? What do you think would happen to each and everyone of you if I caught a little whimsy to go on a jaunt to Georgetown or some other sin bin and maybe never come back? You know what? I do not have to spell it out for you. Your ruin and my damnation. Your doom on earth and my doom in hell. You can slip up. I, sir, on the other hand, have no such luxury. You know what happens to people who slip, don't you? Do you?"

"Yes, sir, they fall."

"That's right, they fall. And you, my oldest friend have fallen from a terrible height."

Smith beckoned a couple of his helpers over to his side. Two young men of a troop who carry out his physical work, his beatings and lockups, his water immersions and his prolonged verbal assaults for any backsliders, slippers and sliders among us.

"Take him to the well. You will spend the rest of the night in the well."

"Please Tom, no."

"I am Tom now to you, am I? What happened to Father, Daddy? Take him away. I hope the water will mend your ways."

Smith's two lieutenants frog-marched Old John from the tent. His wife, Jemima, a woman even older than his mid-80s who always hummed hymns while she worked, fainted, and a few women gathered her up and carried her from Congregation Hall as our meeting place was gloriously known. It took a minute of Smith shouting at us to pay attention to him and not to the wayfarers in our midst as he referred to Old John and his wife, Jemima, for Smith to get us to settle and shake off our involuntary shivers.

His judgment on the old man made my flesh creep and crawl. I belonged to Smith, we all did, and this was what he chose to do with us, his children. An army of ants burrowed just below the surface of my skin. I heard nothing for the rest of that night though Smith shouted at us and locked eyes with me more than once. I slept with my eyes wide open. I looked awake, open and receptive to Smith, but I had shut down all engines in my body, closed all my pores to the world.

My head summoned the catalogue of my plants and a clump of purple-headed lupins poised on a rock revolved in my mind's eye and I sniffed and stroked and peered at it under an imaginary microscope and lifted a sample of it with tweezers and held it to a bright bulb, any and everything to take my mind off Smith. I placed Anancy in the country's army, pictured him as a thief, disguised him as a rabbit, fixed him in a pose as the North Star, each leg a ray of light shot from the body of the star, or Anancy caught in a lie and shamed in front of the entire village, or at a banquet and eating humble pie. Plant and Anancy, save me.

My neighbors on both sides of me shook me by the shoulder and nudged my lolloping head until I jumped out of my seat. They carried Smith out and I could still hear him sermonizing which could only mean I replayed an earlier session of his to compensate for my absence from his current one. I filed out with the rest of the congregation and we tried not to talk about the old man in the well. We kept our mouths shut since it was impossible to know who to trust. Any show of sympathy for him might be reported as opposition to the judgment of Smith and no one opposed Smith, not within the confines of the camp. I took to my bed but lay in the dark and listened to my breathing and the twists and turns of others settling in for the few hours of grace left before morning. These hours flew by ordinarily. Before we knew it daylight was shaking us in our bed to abandon the Devil, idleness, and rise and shine in the name of the Lord. And so they found me, the chacalaka birds or bush alarm clocks of our settlement, those allotted day-duty, the enforcers who made sure all the beds were vacated by everyone but the infirm, my eyes wide open and still in need of a shake to stir me from my stupor. A handful of mint leaves in my hand, squeezed for their perfume and then kept in my grip through the small hours, the quiet, and then start of dawn life, gripped all night to remind me of something that was still mine.

A part of me held the hand of Old John as they lowered him into the well and the rest of me kept him company throughout the long night of damp bones and cold cramps. I told him Anancy stories and he corrected my mistakes and I named the plants that might ease the stiffness in his back and slow down the brittleness of his bones, the flesh folding with them. We talked and cuddled for warmth and in the dark watched each other for the shine in our eyes. And when they pulled him up in the morning and he looked fast asleep and no one could rouse him from his slumber that was because his cold skin and stiff bones told another story for he and I floated down that well and rather than soak all night and freeze we found a portal and squeezed through it and out of this place.