Flour on lacatan leaves. The image held little form in her cloudy mind as she stared through the small window on the ward. She was lucky to have a bed at the end of the pasty, bare room. Still, she began to question the serendipity when the rancid smell of old, smashed eggs assaulted her nostrils first. Then came the complaints.
“Somebody shut e window nuh. Dat dey smell like sumn dead,” came Sally’s gruff voice from the furthest end of the hall. Her fire red, buzzcut mirrored all the authority and confidence that her thundering tone delivered.
“Like latrine.” Grumbled another voice.
“Petra me ah dead.” The frail old lady beside her huffed.
“Is just d garbage truck. Aryo could get on eh.” Petra sucked her teeth and lay back on the tough mattress. It was as hard as enamel. The scent lingered but it was nothing compared to the siege of sulphur at the foot of the volcano. This, was nothing. What did any of them know about dying anyway? She narrowed her eyes at the granny curled up next to her. Petra just had a breast removed after discovering a malignant tumour during a check up months ago. Still, she had tarried on in her plot of land hidden deep within the dense foliage of Georgetown. She planned to live until she died. Not even Soufriere’s recipe of rotten eggs, flour-rain on long-down, green face, banana bush was going to speed up that process. She had worked all the way up to the day of the injury, a few days before the eruption.
Despite her earnestness, a slip of the hand and a wild maneuvre, caused her to inflict upon herself a gaping wound in the leg. She winced as she tried to remember how she hurt herself by turning her partially rusty cutlass in the wrong direction. Currently, she could no longer see the gash. It was neatly covered in gauze and lord-alone-knows-what-else. She wasn’t too bothered. She just wanted to get out of the awkward laze that she was relegated to within the prison of her uncomfortable bed. As God continued to dust the Earth with His saltshaker, she wondered if her plants were faring well in the weather.
Petra had lived long enough to witness this once before. The monstrous anger of Soufriere in 1979. The pelted stones and the wrathful skies of obsidian. The mournful exodus of burdened humans descending from the hilly north, bearing their existences on their backs, slinking like African snails. She was in the middle of the procession, tailing her mother with the fear that if she looked back at the smoky fury, she would be converted into a grainy pillar. She kept her head forward amidst the unnerving grumble of the earth and never looked back.
Almost half a century later, her head remained fixed, her eyes trained ahead. Meanwhile, the granite giantess seemed to hold a longer grudge than usual, having thrown several rageful fits over the last two weeks. Despite her newfound distance in the city to the south of the island, she could feel the forty-year tremor of fear ripping through her occasionally shaky hands.
The radio in the room remained abuzz with the comforting tone of the beloved volcanologist. He had done well for the country, his apt warning allowed everyone who lived in the red zone to escape on time. Petra too had sung his praises all while grumbling to herself about her suffering verdure, now awash with what might as well be cement. She was certain that everyone would survive the ordeal, but the real work lay ahead.
“Petra oye.” Sally boomed across the suffocating airspace. “Lend me a twenty dollars nuh ah wa go top up me card so me could call David.”
Petra’s eyes widened in dismay. She had not responded to her sister’s calls as she was trying to conserve her battery. The flashes of lightning trailing across the sky each evening seemed to snuff the lights out in each home and deliver them far away at the command of the looming empress who continued to tantrum.
“Gyel me hardly have a cent to me name.” she winced a little, turning her legs over the mattress to reach her forsaken cellphone. “Phone only get 10% charge.”
Sally grunted in response and returned to her comfortable repose on her assigned stone slab. “Aryuh hear dey. D nurse say this morning how dem ah run everybody out a doh who not having an emergency.”
“And nuhbody nah say nuttin?” Petra looked up mid-text.
“Hospital full dem say. We have til tonight fuh come outta dem place.”
Petra sighed in response, let out a long stewps and cursed under her breath. ***
Reisa found a park somewhere among the rusted barrels a few feet from Milton Cato Memorial. She bustled to the entrance as quickly as her round, brown legs could take her. Her orotund breasts inhibited her from jostling any faster. As much as she managed to haggle Elisha down to $40 two weeks ago for a hot girl hairstyle, she swore that if another one of those kanekalon braids insisted to smack her in her sweaty round face she would unplait them as soon as she returned home. She wheezed a little, dragging her mask beneath her flared nostrils for some relief only to find herself assailed by drifting grains of ash. Her eyes watered both from discomfort and the threatening tears. She had managed to arrive late to pick up her aunt, even though she had been phoned three hours in advance.
She was not sure what to do with Ishem who had fallen asleep and would not wake up even if another episode were to bellow from the mountains. She questioned her own judgement several times as she latched the wooden front door and then the galvanize gate which sealed the circumference of their yard. The boy was twelve, old enough to take care of himself, she reasoned as she trekked down the hill to catch a bus. Still, she had been leaving the boy on his own since he was younger, if Tanty Petra could not watch him. She did not have time for “well-meaning” neighbours pestering her about what happens when you have a child at sixteen. Even after acquiring her subjects, a teaching diploma and a permanent position as a senior teacher at Adelphi Secondary she was still in the business of keeping to herself and out of people’s mouths. Ishem would be fine. Worst case scenario: lahars could wash him away. She shook her head and quickly rebuked herself for thinking about the most awful results and turned her focus to getting a ride to collect Tanty Petra.
Just a few days before, she had watched from her bedroom window from the heights of Biabou’s hills as vehicles continued to trail southward to escape the wrath of La Soufriere. Although she hadn’t seen much activity since, she knew that Vincentians were the sort to keep it moving as long as they were living. She planned to do the same. Fortunately, her uncle’s boisterous greetings interrupted her race downhill. He had offered her his car after asking her if she was bathing in baby powder. He insisted that nobody should be running around in volcanic ash like that nor standing in it for a long period of time even with an N95 serving as double protection.
Soon she was bolting up the entrance to the healthcare facility. The empty, whitewashed, sepulchral walls sobered her a little. She halted just in front of the burly figure ambling towards her. She backed away instinctually as he wore no mask, and a cruel slant characterized his brows and lips.
“Nobody could come een here anuh. No visitors.” He pointed to a crudely cut, misshapen cardboard sign hung crookedly on the wall with the letters ‘NO VISITORS ALLOWED’ scrawled threateningly in bold, black sharpie.
“Offisa me just come collect me tantie you nah have to behave so.” Reisa was uneasy, she did not like the way that the security guard eyed her as if she was both a threat and prey.
The tension was denser than the thick, cloudy air around them. At that moment, Reisa could hear the familiar, querulous tone of her aunt echoing through the vast, fumigated halls. She turned around to greet her. Truly, through the cinder, the Lord was smiling His biggest smile at her today. Her gleeful, plum lips soon turned down into a frown., however Petra didn’t let her speak. The small woman hobbled forward, gripping two canes with her tiny,
powerful hands. They were wrinkled with time; darkened by the sun and the sheen of her Garinagu ancestors. “Stop watch me so nuh. Nah tell me you plan to carry me home pan yuh head. Me nah gwine kack up inna no van fuh go all up ah Langley Park anuh. Weh yuh father dey?”
Reisa knew her father had lodged himself at the local rum shop, while he threw down some dominoes, belted out a few laughs and swallowed the comfort of his beloved Sunset. Straight. He was too lazy for chasers and could hold his liquor. “Uh, he couldn’t come tanty.”
Petra blinked twice. The tight, dark curls pulled to the back of her head bubbled down past her squared shoulders. They fell into a weary slump. Reisa did not waste time, she blurted out: “but Uncle Alban lend me the car.”
“And is so you still have me here standup like ironman? Girl nah harass my soul eh. Weh d car dey?” Reisa sighed in relief as the bald security guard took his slow retreat from her embarrassing conversation. Then, she suddenly remembered where she parked. Her eyes widened. There, stood Petra on a single, slender, functional leg while the other cauterized and bandaged leg fought in midair to find purpose. It was difficult to watch the woman who had provided for her so often throughout her life… struggle.
“Reisa nah tell me you park da car dey ah country. Me nah inna no position to walk far.” Reisa could not believe that her aunt was being forced out of the hospital under such dreadful conditions. She had heard horror stories about how difficult things could be here, but she didn’t believe them. She had a strong feeling that she would soon have to trade in her teaching hat for the perfunctory function of a night nurse. She sighed, then ran towards the abandoned white Toyota, leaving Tanty Petra kack up on the steps in the most uncomfortable yet statuesque position.
In a few minutes, Reisa had found her way out of her rusty barrel garage. After a brief struggle and some choice words, Tanty Petra was sprawled across the backseat of the old, oak-brown upholstery cursing to herself the entire drive. Reisa’s hand flipped up and down as she tried to remember not to use the wipers. Dust continued to colonize the windshield and populated the streets as she made her way slowly through. She leered at the long lines snaking through the city: first at Digicel, then at Western Union and then at Scotiabank. Things were difficult. Nevertheless, KFC had its own trail like sugar ants. She pressed forward against the steering wheel, the red tips of her acrylic nails squeezing her fleshy palms.
“Watch. Nobody care bout poor people, every minute people have to beg and set up outside MoneyGram only to live hand to mouth. You feel me have money to be in KFC?”
Petra stuck her head out the window. “Go home go cook!” She pushed her thin lips and narrowed her eyes. Reisa observed through the mirror that her aunt was a beautiful woman, but her sullen disposition contorted her face. Before she could channel that irritation towards her niece, her phone sung several clamorous notes.
“Ey! Clarice… Yes, me know you try reach me already… wa yuh mean yuh think me dead? Reisa tell me aryo ha me name pan blast all over the place… Me know aryo wa kill me long time… Fuh true you can’t find no banana?… Eh heh me know dem say we have a likklo shortage… oh me na know dem still does import banana up dey… wa? Yuh pasta say ah next eruption ah come… oh yes d people to repent… eh heh d govament ah nyam out all e money… if dem wicked again… dem soon need to resign some people don’t hear when the Lord talk anuh… Oh you does ha dream too? Yes girl me dream the mountain cough out some brimstone… yea me na get d case ah water yet anuh me na know wa gwine on down ah port… Reisa say no water dey home dem just ah boil water from neighbour… no girl nobody ah live offa river water… no nobody ha money fuh waste pan bottled water so… stop read dem stupidness dey, my phone ah fuh say hello and goodbye bout facebook… no, everybody nah rush up pan no mountain… eh heh up dey dark ohhhh… Sally tell me one man beena tek pitcha… eh heh yuh know dem young people… ah rush fuh throw weh dem life… but, but yes d pitcha dem clear, clear… up dey look like bayside… eh heh.”
And so, it went for the next twenty minutes. It was only when Reisa took the sharp turn on to the rugged dirt road, leading up to the small house in which she and Ishem lived, that Petra came back to reality. “Me nah gwine by you anuh. Ah home me gwine.”
“Auntie you not in no position to go up Langley Park by yourself. And worst yet in this kinda condition. You ain know is Red Zone you live inna? They not letting anybody go up there right about now. Tantie relax yuhself.” Reisa treaded carefully.
Petra sucked in her breath. She had moved to Langley Park for much of her life.
After the great migration from Fancy in 1979, she had a temporary stint in Arnos Vale with her stepmother. Her mother, Eria, had passed away not long after that. She was surprised that her mother could live in peace with Valda, as both had history with the same man as well as children. Petra didn’t care very much about the quibbles of the adults beyond that. Alban, Clarice and Reisa’s mother, Nasandra were her world, although they were much younger than her. Although the custom was that children with the same mother were generally treated as whole siblings, she loved her paternal siblings deeply. She grieved Nasandra’s death in that violent minivan crash ten years ago as bitterly as she would her own child. And then, in many
ways, Reisa became her own child. She pursed her lips before extending her matriarchal sceptre by raising her tone.
“Ah you wa rule me now?”
“Tantie somebody needs to look after you.” Reisa’s voice warbled a bit and her aunt wondered why. “I have to go down to the school soon, it’s my shift this evening to cook supper.”
“Oh how things?” Petra would agree to the slight detour in conversation.
Reisa sighed. “Good. Everybody trying their best to hold on. Some of the teachers frighten the children go fall behind in their work. The children pelting through the dust like nothing ever happen. Dutty, dutty every evening, have d mumma ah dem washing, washing. Clothes still ah ketch back dust when yuh heng dem out. Brown and dutty all d time, tink dem say snow does mek ting white. Ash nah something to play round wid. Snacks come in, boxes come in. They eating good except some people allergic to ting like egg. Some say too much sugar in d juice. Some wa more salt. Is d same people doh. Me tink they woulda quarrel over food but everybody doing their best.”
Petra nodded silently and climbed out of the vehicle and awkwardly stuck her limbs outside as if they were broken tree branches. She was out before Reisa could get around to that side of the car. Before Reisa could say anything, Petra brushed past her niece and hobbled up to the front door. With a clumsy turn, she waved, expecting Reisa to begin the ten-minute promenade down the hill. “Aroight, tek yuh time and see yuh later.”
Reisa ignored her aunt’s bravado and helped her inside. After a quick bath, she heated some leftover bakes, plantains and salami for Ishem and sprinted through the door. Petra sat in the living room and made no effort to hide her disgruntled pout. Her great-nephew lay where he was left, with his arm dangling down the side of the wooden three-seater. He was fine for the day, she was sure nothing would happen to him now.
She limped to the door then bravely pushed it into the warm, May evening. Uncle Alban stood by the car awaiting her arrival. “Since when you does use text? You can’t even call me to tell me yuh living but messaging me to ask for ride up Langley Park. You ainno dat a Red Zone. Nobody could go Over the River.”
“Weh dem go do? Lock me up?” Petra pushed her small backside through the backdoor. The practice resulted in her swift seating. Alban’s mouth formed a flat line of concern. Technically, you could get into the Red Zone as long as you were not caught. He sighed and got into the car. He knew how much this mattered to her. The drive was a long,
quiet one. The further north they travelled; the more Alban felt as if he had entered a Hallmark Christmas movie his wife loved. Petra knew better, she had seen this before.
The slow of the vehicle was sign enough. Silent tears rolled down her cheeks as she gazed at the remnants of her small wall house. It was blanketed with ash. Her verandah floor, once a pale, concrete grey, was now powder. Those she could live with, what really clawed at her heart was the sight of her plot of land. Her banana trees hung sadly under the weight of cinder. The heavens had assailed her darlings with gun powder. Alban raised his brows as the only sound that filled the night was the strangled moans that escaped Petra’s tight throat. He imagined that her mind had wandered to her land. The thought of several banana hands doused in ash depressed him too. He put his calloused hand on his sister’s trembling shoulder. His words drifted out like a gentle gale before a brewing storm.
“Nah worry man Petra. Is only for a time. Dem go grow back.”
**Previously published in Intersect – Feminist Stories, Environmental Edition