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Suffer the Children
Everything good always happens to my big brother, Delano. He starts school for the first time tomorrow. He is the one with the father in Montego Bay. He is the one who is a boy. And he is the one who gets to wear a full suit of khaki tomorrow morning. The only things that we share are our deaf grandmother and a mother who has run away and left us.
Grandma presses the face of the iron onto the damp clothes and the smell of fresh rain on dry dust fills the small room. His new school uniforms are just back from the tailor. She smoothes the wrinkles from the khakis as she mutters a word of prayer. "Lord, I beg you, deliver me from the heat inside this house. Jesus, watch over these children mother. Keep her safe in your bosom." She wipes the sweat from her shining forehead and turns to me. "Stacey, the Good Book tell us, In every thing give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Father God, bless these children and keep them, make your face shine upon them. Lord, you know they need food to sustain them, shoes..."
Grandma prays all day long. I say amen when she is done, but I know that many of the prayers won't be answered. God works in such mysterious ways that you never know which prayer he will answer. When I pray, I just ask for one thing. That way God can't pick and choose what to give me. He has to give me the one thing I ask for.
When each crease is as sharp as a knife, Grandma drapes the khaki suit over the back of the wooden chair. Then she runs the iron swiftly over my only church dress. When the iron is stored safely away, I jump to the floor and race to find my brother.
Unawares, he corners invisible thieves and shouts orders with his gun at waist level. I tap him on the shoulder. "Delano, everything is ready for you first day at school tomorrow."
He presses the imaginary trigger, delivering a round into my belly.
"Delano! You listening?"
"Stacey, me shoot you already! You dead! You can't talk anymore, because you dead!"
"Delano, how me must be dead if me wasn't playing no police-and-thief with you? You hear what me say 'bout you clothes them?"
"Everybody have clothes -- that is nutten fi talk 'bout! Now you is the thief and me is the police. Brapbrapbrap! Me just shoot you so you haffi dead!"
I fall to the floor and close my eyes tight, wishing it were me going to school tomorrow. I don't want to be dying here on the floor. I want to be starting a new life with pencils and books and new clothes made especially for me.
Grandma pokes her head out to the veranda. "But Lawd Jesus! Stacey, get up off that floor! And come inside here right now!"
Two plastic teacups of hot mint tea sweetened with condensed milk sit on the table. Delano blows into his before he sips. I take a sip and burn my tongue. I look to Delano for help. He sucks his teeth and reaches over for my cup. "Stacey, you have to blow on it like this, and take a little at a time. If it still too hot, give me back and me will blow it, all right? But don't take all night fi drink it. Remember that Grandma have to wash the cup them before we go to bed."
Nighttime in Lottery is both magical and scary. There are no streetlights. By sundown everything is so black and quiet I worry that I won't ever see or hear anything ever again. I drain the cup and follow Grandma out into the soft darkness of the yard. Under the moonlight, the backyard does not look like the one I know. The cool night breeze makes the leaves of the banana trees wave about like strange night-praying people. The bigger trees look like duppies. Duppies are the unsaved souls of dead people. Grandma says that we shouldn't be afraid of duppies. "The Bible tell you that a duppy can't do anything to a child of God."
I am still afraid because Delano says that there are some really terrible people who live for the Devil when they are alive. They kill other people and blaspheme and behave like the lawless people of Sodom and Gomorrah. When these children of the Devil die, they are so unwilling to pass over into the eternal fires of hell that they stay here on earth and walk about at night, frightening anybody who happens to see them. The mango tree looks like a big fat devil-duppy waving at me. But then I hear Grandma singing. I can't see her in the dark, but her clear, sweet voice floats across the pitch-black yard.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
When we get back inside, we find Delano sitting on the just-ironed clothes. Everything is squashed between his back and the chair. Grandma grabs him. "Delano, get up from there! You nuh see the press clothes them behind you? You want fi look like crush callaloo tomorrow?"
Delano sighs and throws his body onto the bed. Grandma smoothes out the clothes and lays them flat on the table. "Only God know why you would sit down on the clothes me just fix up for you! Delano, you getting too big for dat kinda behavior! You is a big boy now, near five year old -- and going to school! You have to do better than that, man!"
I want to hit Delano in the head for messing up his clothes. I am not big enough, but if I could, I would sit on him and twist his arm until he says that he is happy to be going to school tomorrow. He just sits there on the edge of the bed picking at his toes. I touch Grandma's arm and carefully mouth to her, "I wouldn't do that to my school clothes, Grandma. I would do better than that."
"Stacey, me wasn't talking to you. Now kneel down there so oonu can say oonu prayers."
Morning arrives with Grandma shaking the sleep out of our droopy eyes. The two of us strip naked and pad out to the dew-covered backyard. Delano tosses a pebble at the stray fowl drinking from the zinc pan filled with water. Delano puts salt on our toothbrushes. Shivering, I push the brush back and forth across my front teeth. I hate brushing my teeth. The hard bristles bruise my mouth and the salt burns the cuts. I reach down to rinse out my toothbrush, but Delano grabs it and adds some more salt. "Brush the back one them! You want to have rotten teeth?"
Roosters crow as Grandma thoroughly lathers us from neck to toes. Her hands move quickly as she washes the suds from our shivering bodies. I am happy when she finally wraps us into one warm, squirming, toweled bundle. We sit with our feet dangling from the bed, eating one slice of hard-dough bread, half a boiled egg, and a cup of fever-grass tea.
Delano looks like a big boy in his khaki suit. I am so jealous I want to yank off his brown and white shoes with the tan laces. Grandma wets his hair and parts it down the middle. Then she combs the sections neatly behind his ears. His head glistens in the sun. Because my hair is not as straight and pretty as Delano's, Grandma has to use Vaseline when she braids it. Delano gets a long pencil, which Grandma has sharpened with the kitchen knife. I want a pencil too, and my own khaki uniform.
On our way to the schoolhouse we pass Marse Jeb's yard, the police station where Grandma works, the big church with the pretty glass windows, and Marse George's yam grounds. The school is a bright blue house with two tiny windows in the front. A tall woman, whom Grandma calls Miss Sis, meets us on the steps. When she reaches for Delano, he shrinks from her and hides behind Grandma. She stoops and smiles at him. That all her teeth are the same exact size scares me. I join Delano behind Grandma's skirt. Miss Sis pokes her head around Grandma's legs and smiles again.
Her voice is soft and kind. "Lawd, Miss Bernice, he looks like a little gentleman! I am pleased to have him here. He looks like he will do well. And this is the little sister! She is as pretty as a willy penny!"
Grandma gently pushes Delano forward. "Delano, I beg yuh, please behave yourself. Do not give Miss Sis any trouble. I will come back for you this evening."
Miss Sis takes Delano by the hand. Grandma and I begin to move down the steps. I look back at Delano standing there, lips trembling, eyes filling with tears. I don't want him to stand there by himself crying. I pull away from Grandma, run up the steps, and grab his hand away from Miss Sis. "Let him go! Is not your brother! Him is mine!"
Grandma tries to pull me off him, but I stick both hands into the waist of his pants and sink my teeth into his leg. Both of us are screaming and holding on to each other. Grandma is so ashamed she can't even look at us. "Miss Sis, is not so me raise them, you know! As there is a God up in heaven, I never see them behave like this at all, at all!"
Miss Sis places her face directly in front of Grandma's. "Miss B, look at me face so you can hear me. It is quite all right, is normal, especially if is only the two of them. Tell you what -- as long as she can say when she need to use the bathroom she can stay with him."
Delano squeezes my hand and we both stop crying to listen.
"Oh, yes, Miss Sis! She can talk plain, plain as day! I never see a little girl talk so much from me born! Her mouth is bigger than the whole of Montego Bay and Lottery put together. That would be a blessing, ma'am, but me only have the money for the boy. Me can't pay for both of them with the little I get from the boy father."
"Don't worry about that, Miss Bernice, money is not everything. Just pay for the boy. If and when you have a little more, you can give it to me then."
"Lord, Miss Sis, this is truly a blessing to me! Thank you very much, ma'am. The Lord will bless yuh more and more for your kindness to the poor and needy."
"One hand wash the other, Miss Bernice, one hand wash the other."
Miss Sis ushers us into the blue house. A table and two long benches almost fill the room. The walls are covered with round red things that sort of look like tomatoes. Miss Sis informs us that there are nine other children in the school. The boys sit on one bench while the girls sit on the other. I don't want to sit so far from Delano, but I am afraid to say so lest Miss Sis sends me back home.
Miss Sis goes to the blackboard and makes a mark. She says the mark is the letter A. "And what word begins with the letter A, children?"
Nobody says anything.
"Don't worry, children. It is normal to forget. Can someone point out an apple in this room?"
I look around. Nothing on the walls looks like an apple to me. The other children look equally bewildered. Finally Miss Sis smiles and points to one of the red tomato things on the wall. "This is an apple, children. And A is for apple -- repeat after me, A is for apple."
Confused, I face the tomato-looking picture and say with the other children, "A is for apple."
"Good, and now we will do some writing."
Miss Sis says she is here to help each of us to learn to write our own name. "Boys and girls, everything we learn, we learn through constant and diligent practice!"
In our books, she makes dots and encourages us to connect them. When I am done connecting, she holds my face and kisses me. She smells like Vicks VapoRub and thyme. I feel very special when she asks me if I have any questions about the lesson.
"Yes, Miss Sis. Is why you tell the children that the tomato them is apple?"
She smiles. "Stacey, I know that those things look like tomatoes to you, but they are apples. Not like our apples, these apples are American apples. You ever hear of a place called America?"
The smell of thyme on her breath makes me think about brown-stewed chicken. I inch closer to Miss Sis. "Grandma say America is where the banana boat go?"
"Yes, Jamaica exports banana to America on the banana boat. Very good, Stacey! You have a good memory for things! Now, let us see what we can do about teaching you to write those things down."
Delano makes up games for us to play. He tells me where to stand and what to do and how long to do it. Because he makes the rules, he is always in charge. On Saturday morning while Grandma does housework we play Superman on the veranda. The rules of Superman are simple. I sit square in the middle of a cloth foot-wipe. Delano grabs the two front corners and shouts, "Ready, Stacey? You ready to fly?"
Ready or not, I say, "Yes, Delano, I am ready to fly."
The object of the game is to slide me from one end of the veranda to the other. Delano takes a breath and rapidly propels me forward. He trips and I end up hitting my head. I try hard not to cry. As long as I remain dry-eyed, Delano is gentle with me. So I button my lips and brush off my dress. He hurries over. "You all right, Stacey? You can go again?"
"Yes, Delano! Me fine!"
"All right! This time we going to go really fast. But don't worry, this time I go take good care of you."
He takes my hand and sets me on the foot-wipe. Beneath the surface of the polished wood, my reflection is alive with excitement. Delano's voice is pitched high with his own enthusiasm. "All right, Stacey. We go do better this time. Just make sure you hold on good!"
He dashes forward and we are off. I am trying my best not to fall off the square of yellow cloth. My brother slides me across the slippery wood. The maroon-red floor is a rushing blur, and inside my head my eyes are spinning like tops. Suddenly Delano flies into the veranda rail. I sail pilotless into the wall ahead. My right knee jerks up, smacking my forehead. It feels like my head has opened up. I am sure my forehead is bleeding. I spit flat into my hand and rub the sore spot above my eye. There is no blood, but now there is too much spit on my face. I wipe the slimy excess all over my neck. I check to see how Delano is doing. He is also wiping globules of sticky saliva from his forehead. We burst out laughing. We laugh and laugh and laugh until our stomachs hurt. I have to think about Jesus dying on the bloody cross before I can stop.
Finally, I roll over and brush the tiny pieces of red floor polish from my legs. Delano drags himself upright. "All right, Stacey, hurry up and get back on!"
I am exhausted from the flying and too much laughing. And my head hurts. A big round coco is already forming on my bruised forehead. The raised bump throbs against my fingers. I don't feel like flying anymore. "No, Delano, me finish!"
"What you mean, you finish? Me not done yet! Just wipe off you bottom and get back on the mat, man!"
"But, Delano, me don't want to play anymore." I don't know why I am arguing with him. I know I will eventually have to do what he wants.
"If you play one more time, we can finish after that. One more time, Stacey, then after that you can do anything you want!"
It feels good to just lie down on the cool floor. Through the slats of the railing, I see strips of the blue sky. Then Miss Sylvie is coming in her big, broad flower hat. In the bright hot sunlight her white dress makes her look like a duppy floating upside down toward me. But I know it is not a duppy. It is only Miss Sylvie going to church. She goes on Saturdays because she's a Seventh-Day Adventist.
She holds down her hat with one hand and waves to us with the other. "Good mornin, children! Good mornin!"
I don't want to play Superman anymore. I want to stay right where I am and watch Miss Sylvie as she calls out a greeting to Marse George, who is approaching from the other direction. He waves back with his gleaming wet machete. Miss Sylvie gets smaller and smaller as she walks farther and farther away. Marse George is getting bigger and bigger. Grandma says that men who work the ground from sunup till sundown have all of God's good blessing on them. Marse George might have God's blessing, but he does not have one tooth in his head. When you look inside his mouth all you see is his tongue and the little ball hanging down from the back of his throat. I think I would rather have all my teeth than all God's blessing. At least with teeth I can eat sugarcane.
Marse George spends his days planting fields and fields of white yam. He also has two big fat cows that give fresh milk. Every day he brings a bottle of milk and gives it to Grandma for free. He raises the empty quart bottle in greeting. "Howdy! Howdy, tell Miss Bernice I say howdy! Tell her I will pass back with a fresh bottle when me done milk them cows!"
Because Grandma can't hear what he is saying from so far away, Delano tells her what is said. She listens and then smiles and waves back. "All right! All right, sah! Me will be right inside here, just make one of them come inside and call me!"
I stick my arms through the openings in the railing and shout, "Mornin, Marse George! Mornin, Marse George!"
"Mornin, little miss! Good mornin to you too!"
Marse George waves at Miss Cherry, who passes every morning to fetch water from the public standing pipe. Beads of sweat glisten on her large nose as she straightens her dress, wipes her face, and adjusts the waistband of her skirt. Not once does she reach up to steady the fivegallon kerosene pan full of water on her head. I marvel that the pan does not fall with all that movement.
"Morning, children! Make me come inside the yard so you Granny can see to hear what me saying."
Miss Cherry lowers her face to Grandma's. "Lord, Miss Bernice! You two granny them look especially white and pretty this morning. Keep them outta the sun, you don't want fi spoil up them skin -- especially the little girl!"
"Thank you, Miss Cherry! How is Marse Jeb this week?"
"Lawks, Miss Bernice, him so-so. But God won't give we more than we can bear. We just have to praise his name and hope for the best."
"You talk truth deh, Miss Cherry! You just keep on bathing him in that fever grass, and put him before the Lord in prayer, and leave him there!"
"Yes, Miss Bernice, but you must call them in from off the veranda. That little girl going to turn black in the hot, hot sun!"
"Thank you, Miss Cherry. But the room is too small fi keep them coop-up inside. The sun not doing them anything, and everything that happen is the Lord's will."
"But remember, Miss Bernice, God help those who help themself. The color them have is only because them mother have sense. Hazel have enough sense to make sure to give them fathers with clean white skin. You have to take care of them until she ready to come and take them to America. Is Canada or America she gone?"
"Is Canada, ma'am, but -- "
"I am sure that things is just like them is in Jamaica. A clean complexion will take them very far in them life -- much farther than them other tar-black pickney them who born here and going to dead right in Lottery."
"Well, only God know what in store fi these two children, Miss Cherry, only the Father know."
"True words, Miss Bernice, true words! But I will tell Jeb you ask after him! See you fi church tomorrow, God willing."
As Miss Cherry disappears around the bend, I touch Grandma's arm. "Grandma, why Miss Cherry don't want we fi get black?"
"Stacey" -- there is a sharp note in her voice -- "Stacey, is not everything good fi eat good fi talk."
"But, Grandma -- "
"Stacey, stop asking me that foolishness and keep yourself outta big people business!"
"But, Grandma, me was sitting right here when she was talking 'bout we! I wasn't listening to anything that is not my business!"
"Stacey, put your bottom on that cloth before I make your backside red with something else! You believe you hire any washerwoman to rub any red polish out of them clothes?"
I know that Delano will tell me, so I adjust my bottom and whisper to him with my mouth turned away from Grandma. "Delano, is true say we white?"
"Well, Stacey, we are not white like real white people. But we father is Chiney, so we not Black. You understand?" I nod and he continues. "But you know that I am more whiter than you, right?"
"Because my hair is straight and yours is rough and tough like Grandma."
"My hair lie down just as flat like yours when Grandma put castor oil and water in it!"
"Stacey, listen to me, you not as white as me -- feel my hair, it don't need no castor oil, just a little water make it lie down flat."
"Delano, the two of we look just the same. The two of we is Chiney Royal -- that mean say the two of we is white."
"Yes, the two of we is Chiney Royal, but my hair is nicer and me skin is whiter, so me more Chiney Royal than you."
I am tired of Delano acting like he is better than me. So what if he has nicer hair or whiter skin? It does not mean anything. And when I look at him I don't think we look that much different from one another. Delano picks up the foot-wipe and flaps it loudly in the air. He lays it flat onto the floor again.
"But, Stacey, you still better off than them other Black children. You can feel good about that. Now, come sit down and let me pull you."
I cross my arms and smugly ask the first question. "Delano, if you whiter than me, that mean that me is blacker than you, right?"
"Yes, Stacey, that is true."
"And our mother is Black, right?"
"Is what kind of stupid question you asking me? Everybody know that our mother is Black!"
"Okay, that must mean say me must look more like Mummy than you, right?"
Delano does not answer. He roughly pushes me onto the cloth and tells me to hold on before I fall and break my stupid Black neck.
"You ready to fly again?"
I begin to cry.
"Come, man, Stacey. Don't bother with that."
He roughly grabs both my hands and raises them above my head. "Who am I?"
I sniffle and whine. "Superman."
"And who are you?"
I know all the answers. "Superwoman."
"So what that mean, Stacey? Come, man, tell me what it mean." Delano is now pumping my arms up and down and shouting, "Come, nuh, say what that mean, Stacey. Tell me, tell me what that mean."
"It mean -- it mean we must -- we can't -- that -- that -- "
"Stacey, it mean that no matter what happen, you cannot cry. People with superpowers don't need to cry. No matter how many times you drop off the thing, even if you hit your head, you just have to get right back up and fly again."
I button my lips and wipe my face. Delano relaxes when he sees that I am not crying anymore. He gently pats my hair and fixes my twisted dress. Then he straightens the foot-wipe. "All right, Stacey, you ready to fly?"
I wipe my face and shout back, "Ready! Yes, me ready!"
Before long, the lines on the wooden floor are sailing by. The world is spinning again and I am immersed in the sound of our squealing delight.Copyright © 2009 by Staceyann Chin