Grandma’s House

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1934, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica

The howling had begun at around 6:40 that evening, at just about the time when the refracted sun rays blushed amber and changed the warm pallid sky into a beautiful peach-coloured hue in delicate relief to the pigeons and nightingales silhouetted as they made their way homeward.

Daphney was uneasy. The dogs had been giving trouble all day. Mas George had had to put Brutus down only that morning. The animal had turned wild, and he had come running from his work in the pigsty when he heard his sister scream. Brutus had dragged one of the goat kids under the house and had savaged it there – right in the middle of the area where his sisters had played as children. The tiny body lay sprawled on the ground, that had been swept clean until it shone and the blood still oozed from the neck and chin rend open by the dog’s teeth. The kid was not yet dead. It was struggling to breath, flailing to fend Brutus off, to get onto its feet, away from its pain. Brutus worried it mercilessly until he saw Daphney and then he let it go to snarl at her. That was when Mas George came. He felt sick to his stomach.

His eyes had not yet adjusted for the change in light, but Mas George had seen enough. With his graying muzzle stained with the kid’s blood, Brutus’ eye’s had rolled and Mas George could see only the white in the dim light under the cellar. He turned and barked sharply at his sister.

“Go into di house Miss Daph; an don’t come out until a tell yuh. Is di devil tek dis dawg yah tiday.”

Daphney retreated as she was told; the fading bleat of the goat kid still thundering in her ears. She would have to tell Gwendolyn about this as soon as she got home. Brutus just couldn’t be trusted anymore. He didn’t show any sign of rabies; but it was clear that the animal had gone mad. She was still thinking about how they were going to have to get rid of him when she heard him howl loudly and give one accusing yelp; then there was silence. Brutus was dead – out of his misery.

The day which had dawned clear and bright, full of the singing of birds and the rustling of leaves, seemed somber and limp after that. Every time she remembered her sister’s pet, Daphney got more depressed. She thought about how her mother had long seemed to know that there was something wrong. Everybody else had dismissed Mother Maude’s comments after Gwendolyn had twisted her ankle in one of the holes that the dogs had dug in the yard.

“Ah wonder is who dis dawg trying to bury eeh sah?” she declared exasperatedly.

“Oh Mama! Doan bodda wid dat duppy business,” Precious had scolded her. “Dis is 1934. Yuh cyaan still believe in dem tings deh.”

“Yuh stay deh tink seh me is ole fashion and stupid. But even Jesus did know dat there is evil spirits on dis earth;” and she began to pray silently, her eyes closed and her lips moving.

The old lady had cried bitterly when she was told about the dog. She had heard the commotion and had come to see what was wrong. Daphney was surprised, and tried to comfort her mother, taking her to her bosom; but Mother Maude just shrugged her off – refusing to be consoled – clutching her stomach sobbing as whe went to lie down. She did not get up again for the rest of the day.

So, Daphney was left alone in the parlour that evening listening to the chorus of howls. Mas George had gone to the bar at Wayside, and Precious had gone to Church. Although it was late, Gwendolyn hadn’t come home yet, and Daphney kept looking through the window into the yard for her. There was never anyone there except the thick bushes, peopled with hundreds of peenie wallies which winked at her through the black night.

At last Daphney heard Mas George and some of his friends came home. She smiled to herself. Funny how she felt safer now that there were other people around…

1971

It was just after midday on Sunday afternoon. The pastor had exhorted his congregation to stalwart Christian service now that their worship was done, and so scores of people wend their way homeward for their Sunday dinners. Gwen and Sonia skipped across the yard with their dog, Bruno, toward the top house where their Grandmother lived. The girls paused to pick up some stones to try to knock down two star apples which hung just over their heads from the tree next to the kitchen window.

Gwen was the older of the sisters. The girl was too tall, and not fat enough to be seven; but she was. She was a lovely child with a pear shaped face and large eyes. Her skin was so dark it was almost blue. She could run faster, jump higher, shout louder and spit farther than any other child in the district. She could also swim, climb trees and chop down a cane sucker by herself, and this gave her some notoriety in Content, since the time when she had been caught clearing two ratoons from the stand in a neighbouring field; her reason being that she and her friends were hungry.

“Di girls did tell me to cut dem and ah did,” she said simply. “But we was hungry!” she insisted when pressed by her embarrassed Uncle George, and the bewildered Mas Clifford upon whose cane they had just feasted.

“Mas Clifford have plenty, plenty an we didn’ take so much as all dat. We wasn’t dat hungry… Is not really stealin’ because we was really really hungry and we jus took dem to eat,” she argued. “Wi wouldn’ tek dem if wi didn’ really need dem Uncle George…”

George McCook apologised to his neighbour, and offered to pay for the cane. Although he wouldn’t have admitted it openly, he had agreed with the logic in his grandneice’s argument. The children were hungry. The child really wasn’t rude, she was just highly spirited, and she showed an unusual moral maturity for one so young. Gwenny probably had a very old soul he had concluded for the hundreth time. She understood things that no one else did…

***

Mas George had burned the bodies on the heat of rubbish near the fence. It wouldn’t be right for Gwendolyn to see Brutus and the kid whose life had been sacrificed. He sprinkled the cellar with white rum – a libation for the spirits – and had some for himself to calm his nerves. He got three basins of water to wash the place clean of the blood of the animals. He filled the empty white rum bottle with water from one of the basins and corked it tightly. That would be buried later at the root of the cotton tree on the hill behind the Presbyterian Church…

***

The girls ran up the nine steps into their grandma’s house. They looked around to see if any one was about. There was no one, the place was still. Sonia turned to go into the kitchen – sure that her grandmother would be found there, but Gwen was startled by a woman, tall, slim and erect; dressed in a long black skirt that reached almost down to her ankles and a beautiful white blouse, made of Irish linen and embroidered at the collar and cuffs of its long sleeves. The lady turned away slightly at the approach of the child, but oddly enough, Gwen did not feel that she was a stranger. She seemed to belong to the house, to be intimately familiar with it, but Gwen was sure that she had never seen her before. Bruno growled.

***

Mas George looked toward the house where his sister stood behind the curtain at the front window, peeping out. He gave her a curt nod of encouragement. Everything would be alright as soon as he returned from the Church yard and had his bath. Mas George wasn’t an emotional man – except when he was angry – but this whole business had really shaken him up. He had just decided to speak with Daphney and Mother Maude about encouraging Precious to have a few Bible study classes at the house because it might do the place some good when he felt his leg buckle as he twisted his ankle and fell into one to the little potholes left in the yard by the dogs. Mas George’s rum bottle flew from his hand and smashed into a hundred pieces against the neat whitewashed wall; the water dousing the path and trickling away along the crevasses.

Mas George swore violently under his breath. He heard Daphney give an involuntary cry from behind the window and saw her come running down the steps into the yard.

“Is drink yu gwine go drink so early in di day, George?” she demanded.

Mas George looked back at her grimly.

“Go back inside,” he thundered as he picked himself up. “Ah gwine to want mi dinner as soon as ah come back.”

Daphney hissed her teeth at him, and glared, scornfully; but she said nothing.

“No,” George said to himself, “someting wrong ‘ere.” He stood still, scratching his head, unsure of what he should do next. Suddenly, Mas George strode purposefully to the stable, saddled his mule and rode off toward the town.

***

Gwen smiled at the lady and wandered toward her with the friendly confidence of a favourite child.

“Good mawnin’. Yuh see mi Granma?”

There was no answer.

“My name is Gwendolyn Wilson; an it’s my Granma who live here. I live down at di bottom house wid my mother and sister an brother,” she tried again. “Where do you live?”

No reply.

The child was surprised. She was accustomed to having people be very interested in her. She wondered if the lady just couldn’t hear very well, so she decided to speak a little loudly.

“Is who dat yuh in dere talkin’ to Gwen?” came her Grandmother’s voice.

Bruno whimpered pitifully by Gwen’s side and suddenly, the child felt afraid and turned to run toward the kitchen. She glanced behind her to see if she were being followed.

***

“Is a good ting yuh come to me when yuh did, Mas George,” the man regarded him approvingly. “Yuh were right, dat new Irish man up at di Church couldn’t deal wid dis. Is too serious. So what yuh seh happen?”

Mas George told him the story again; giving careful details on this occasion.

“An yuh seh di head didn’t come off clean?”

“No but ah tek it off right away wid mi secon chap.”

The Myal Man studied him seriously. “Mi nah tell yuh no lie, is a serious business dis; but ah can help yuh. Ah who fa dawg yuh seh it is?”

“Gwendolyn.”

“The man frowned. “An she is a good girl; right?”

“Of course!” Mas George jumped angrily to his feet.

“Sit down Mas George,” the man said soothingly. “You an I know that she is a good girl, but yuh know how it is sometimes.”

“Gwendolyn is not like dat.”

“She have any reason fi anybaddy hate har?”

“N-n-o…”

“Well, accardin’ to my reasonin’ a mus so it go. Is a powerful omen dis. Somebaddy a carry strang feelins’ fi she.”

“A mussi one a di gyal dem at di school weh she teach, yuh know how people grudgeful. Dem nuh like see anybaddy get on. She a pupil teacher already and she jus turn twenty.”

The Myal Man nodded understanding.

“Anyway yuh seh yuh tink yuh cyan do someting?”

“Yes man. Everyting gwine work out alright.”

Mas George and the Myal Man made plans, and then George went home to do as he was instructed.

***

“What is it Gwen? Who dat in there with yuh?”

The child burst into the room, clearly agitated.

“Is a lady, Granma.”

“Which lady?” said Mrs. Marsh hurrying back into the parlour.

There was no one there and the child began to cry.

“Hush child. Hush!”

Gwen didn’t calm down. She began to tell her grandmother exactly what she had seen. The old lady’s eyes opened wide and she stared.

“Precious! Precious, come quick! Bring di salt, Precious!” she bawled as she gripped the little girl, firmly.

Mas George, who was just coming up the walk way for his weekly Sunday meal also heard her and came in as fast as he could. He and his sister nearly collided in the doorway as they hurried toward Daphney and the child.

“Yuh see yuh nearly mek mi dash weh di salt, George! Mek yuh nuh siddung?” she lamented.

“Quick give it to mi here,” Daphney commanded. “Come child eat dis.”

“What happen, Mama?”

“Di chile see yuh Auntie Gwendolyn, an she talk too quick!”

Gwen struggled to get away, but it was useless. Her grandmother seemed to have developed an amazing strength, and she would not be put off from what she was doing despite the excited commotion caused by the dog yapping on the floor.

***

The body was found at around dusk. Two young boys, taking a short-cut across the shallow part of the river had seen two legs sticking up among the reeds as if someone was diving there. They went closer to be better able to see what was happening; and then they ran screaming into the night.

Mas George was at the bar playing dominoes with three friends. His good mood and bonhomie were as a result of the free flow of white rum and the fact that he and his partner were up five-love in the set.

“Come quick sah. Is yuh sista. Dem fine har out a road – down by di riva!”

“What dat yuh seh bout mi sista?”

“She dead Mas George! She dead!”

Gwendolyn’s head had been severed. It had not been found. Her body lay streched out on the embankment being gawked at by scores of onlookers.

Several women wept and tried to chase away the children who had been made bold by their own curiosity and their parents’ distraction. The men looked to Mas George for instructions. They would kill whomever was responsible if he would only tell them where to go. He couldn’t. He simply took his shirt off and tried to cover the young woman; to shield her from prying eyes; to protect her now because he had failed her before. Perhaps they would find the head tomorrow morning, but for now, he had to find Precious at the Church meeting and take her home to be with Daphney and Mother Maude.

***

“What do you mean by she saw Auntie Gwendolyn, Mama?” Lurline seemed alarmed.

“I mean jus what ah seh. She saw yuh Auntie Gwendolyn. Tell yuh Madda what yuh saw, child,” she commanded.

Gwen obeyed.

“Yuh seh she did look sad?” Mas George asked.

“Well ah didn’t really see har face,” Gwen admitted, “but ah tink she was pretty and she look sad.”

“Yes, yuh Auntie Gwendolyn was a very beautiful woman and she did bright too,” said Precious shaking her head in wonder and smiling to herself, now that the threat to the child had been averted by the salt. “It was a real tragedy; a real shame when she was killed.”

“But me neva know seh me did have a Auntie Gwendolyn.”

“Yes child yuh did. Is she yuh Madda name yuh for,” said Daphney. Then she reached for both children, put them on her ample lap and told them about her young sister who had been killed nearly forty years before.

“So what did happen next?”

“Well, it was nearly six years after dat dat we did fine out what really happen. The man’s name was McKnight. He did tek a liking to yuh Auntie and because she wouldn’t hear of it, and he wouldn’t have anybody else but her, him kill har. Jus like dat! It was a terrible time,” she said shaking her head sadly. “Yuh Uncle George yah nearly go off him head. Him start drinking heavier dan before. Him used to seh it was his fault because it was him first did know dis Mr. McKnight. We used to sell chickens an goats an pigs to dis man far him shop. He was a farrier an he owned a meat shop in town. Him used to come on yah to yuh Granuncle, an him mussi see you Auntie Gwendolyn an him fall far har. Dirty ole man,” she added spitefully. “Him was ole enough to be har fadda.” she paused.

“He was a rich man to be sure. He had a buggy; but dat didn’t impress Gwendolyn at all,” Precious cut in with satisfaction.

“What happen was dat yuh Auntie Gwendolyn always used to come home by di main road through the town but it so happen, my dear children, that one day she was runnin’ late an decide to tek di short cut acrosss di river stones. Dis man see har when she pass him at di door ah di bar an follow har. Him was escortin’ har home him seh. Him seh him ask har to marry him an she seh no because she was already getting married to Mr. David Boothe. I don’t think that was true because it was the first that any of us had heard anyting about that, and Mr. Boothe never really come here more dan so, and him never call on us since she dead. But anyway a so him seh she seh.” She paused again and shook her head.

“Him seh him nuh know what happen. All him know is dat him jus lose him head. Him seh madness tek him; an di nex ting him know she dead, an a him kill har. Him was so frighten him jus push har into di water an run…” It was a strange day; first di dawg went mad. Yuh rememba Brutus? An den dat. Yuh Uncle all try obeah to save har…it was jus har time”.

It wasn’t obeah; di man was a Myal man.”

“So what happen to him, Granma?” Sonia asked.

“Nothing mi chile.”

“Di police never come far him.”

“No. As ah seh is six years before we fine out anyting. Him did leave di district about five months after. Said he was going back to Canada where he was from. His lawyer sent us a letter after he died, and it explain everyting.”

“What I was really angry about though was how nobody saw or heard anything”, said Precious.

“Not even one person?” asked Lurline.

“Nobody. We had the man here for five months before he left, and we didn’t do anything.”

“We couldn’t have done anything to him. He was too powerful.” said Mas’ George, sadly.

The others all turned to stare at him.

“What yuh mean by dat George? Wi could a mek police tek him weh!  Him woulda hang fi sure in doze days!  Rememba, it was 1934.  Tings did different den.”

“He was a rich man,” he said simply. “I couldn’t do him anything.”

“What yuh telling me, George? You knew is him an you neva do anyting?”

“Me neva know fe sure seh is him. But me did see when him leave di bar after har. Me did glad. Me thought he coulda give har di tings she did deserve. Me neva know him woulda hurt her… Me nearly dead wid her dat day… Good God, him kill wi Gwendolyn an is my fault!”

________________

If you are interested in reading some more about Jamaican folklore please click here or there for an incredible collection of stories, songs and riddles!   Of course, if you’re interested in seeing some more of St. Elizabeth, the place from which my maternal grandparents come, please click ya so.

About Gabrielle Burns

I am a Jamaican at play here in this vast playground in cyberspace....Yes, at times I do like to live dangerously, but I AM also working hard at becoming more interesting by the day... :)
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