Glory turned her back on the day, reaching for the dream with languid arms; like a lover tired from the last round of lovemaking but yearning for more. But, like a lover who’d had enough, the dream drifted away.
She imagined she could hear it brushing its teeth, flushing the toilet, starting the shower on the other side of the bathroom door.
She turned over, opened still-heavy lids to the light filtering through the thin curtains. It mocked her, like every other typical Caribbean sunrise these days, with its bright dimpled smile. Only, the smile didn’t reach the eyes. But you had to know the face to see the lie.
Glory closed her eyes, chased the memory of the dream. But it was already as thin as summer-clouds. All that remained was an afterglow, the hue of sunset in its final stage, everything bathed in amber; Hector’s fading laughter and heavy feet lightly padding away.
Glory sighed and pushed up.
She went to the bathroom, brushed her teeth, peed, flushed, and showered.
KEELING POINT MURDER DRUG RELATED, the newspaper headline screamed. Glory had glimpsed it as she idled behind the black SUV in traffic about a week ago; hands reaching out, money being exchanged, and, for a minute, the headline angled toward her as though deliberately.
It hadn’t been deliberate, of course. But she couldn’t help but imagine – though her picture had never been in the paper – that everyone tracked her after that, the lie turning their eyes cold. On an island of only 108 square miles, it wasn’t a stretch to believe that every other person knew somebody who knew somebody who maybe knew her.
Besides, the papers may not have run the picture of the grieving ‘wife’ of the island’s latest murder victim, but the death had forced her into the spotlight. Every murder was still big news, though the body count was getting higher than they were used to or comfortable with in Antigua. Most blamed the now steady stream of deportees from America and Britain; toxic waste, manufactured overseas and being flushed back into the Caribbean Sea. Who but some foreign-bred bad john could hold a gun in his neighbour’s face in broad daylight or feed drugs to children?
It was inevitable that onlookers would turn out in their numbers to catch the show. Even before these dread times, it had been the custom with high profile funerals and weddings – one quietly moving through the streets at its own pace leaving quiet in its wake, the other gaily announcing its presence with blaring horns. Glory remembered the theatre of it all from her own youth, running barefoot to the corner to catch the show. When her turn to be an actor came, no one had pointed and said, “There she is, the woman he live with”, but she didn’t fool herself that she’d been invisible. Some knew and those who didn’t would soon know; bad news tended to spread faster than wild fire fanned by the trade winds blowing in over the Atlantic.
Glory hadn’t stepped far from her front door since that headline. She watched the world go by through louvres in need of cleaning: children in blue jumpers, Mr. Hanley kicking up dust as he raced up the hill in his beat-up red pick-up, Ms. Baby’s granddaughter who’d recently finished school going off to work in heels that had her tipping oddly along the rocky road.
Sometimes, during the day, the only sound was the distant rumble of traffic rushing along the main high way to Lookout Ridge – a favourite tourist vista – and the song of the occasional bird checking to see if the mangoes were in season as yet.
She might venture out then; sit under the mango tree in the backyard. As she was now, watching a bird – maybe the usual one, maybe another – peck eagerly at the pregnant orange-coloured flesh. It ate a hole through the fullest side of the mango, only to dash off to begin anew on another. The mangoes were plentiful this summer in spite of the rain’s usual stinginess; only they were mostly half-rotted and hollowed out thanks to the birds’ industriousness. Glory couldn’t bring herself to care.
She remembered when the tree was just a sapling; remembered driving cows away during the recurring cycles of drought when their owners set them loose to menace the highways and find their own sustenance. She remembered trying to beat the birds to the best fruit, but leaving a little something behind for them to sup on. That was Hector’s influence. “Dem ha fu eat, too,” he said whenever she fussed.
He’d planted the tree, for her. She saw him as he’d been then, digging the resisting earth: Smile big, white and wide; eyes jumping, as if to an inner and constant soca rhythm.
Glory sagged on the bench, an old church pew Hector had dragged back from somewhere. He’d sanded it down and painted it the bright orangey-yellow of the mango, but it still listed to the right. “What you do, steal from some church?” she’d asked at first, thinking of her mother and too many nights spent sitting on hard pews while her mother danced up and down the aisles with the rest of the Saved. She remembered the moaning that accompanied their jerky motions, and how she’d pressed herself into the corner of the pew, eyes closed against their ghostly moaning and otherworldly movements. She remembered, too, how when she was old enough to say “no” she stopped going to the church even if her mother called her “heathen”.
At first, she couldn’t imagine sitting down on the pew Hector had set under the mango tree. But as he had in all other areas of her life, Hector erased the shadowy memory determinedly. He sanded it down until it bore no resemblance to anything, really; and then changed its features to something more pleasant. There, in the shadow cast by the tree, she’d sat many a night, Hector’s scratchy fisherman’s hands moving up her thighs, his wide smile bright as day even in the dim light.
Hector’s body floated up at Keeling Point with the rest of the garbage, bloated and stinking. When she’d been called down to identify it, it had seemed to her naked eyes, close to bursting like a poisoned cow in the sweltering heat. By that time, his boat had been late getting back by a couple of weeks, and, always a practical woman, Glory had already assumed the worst. She didn’t cry, and she held little hope of her son, who worked on the bright orange fish boat Morning Glory with Hector, miraculously walking across the water. She should feel guilty that that didn’t sting as much as the reality of a dead Hector lying before her as the crowd gathered seemingly immune to the ripe smell coming off the body.
The Coast Guard never found the boat, nor her son, nor the dead fish. She suspected that they hadn’t put much energy into the mystery; much easier to invent theories about drug deals gone bad. Maybe she should have pushed more, should still, but she didn’t have the energy for it.
He would have fought for her, she knew. She should feel guilty about that, too. But she just felt tired.
She’d been tired the first time she set eyes on him; a different kind of tired maybe, but tired just the same.
Weekend at Palm Beach, so, typically, the locals had been out in their numbers; the tourists poolside at Palm Hotel, retreating from the beach as they tended to when the locals descended.
Around her, children screamed as children do delightedly when the salt and sun hits them. Hope trailed behind her silently. He was on punishment and it showed in the slump of his shoulders as he trailed her. She didn’t mind saying that he was to blame for every knot of tension stiffening her shoulders. She felt so tired of him that if she’d glanced back to find he’d disappeared into the ether she would have felt relief. She did feel guilty over that feeling, guilty and frustrated. Guilty, frustrated, angry, and tired – the crocheted and tie-dyed items and beaded jewelry she carried feeling heavy. She remembered fumbling with the beads and string in the near dark, able to feel her way after all this time, waiting for him to climb back through his bedroom window. Some of her best work, but no one out to buy it. She could count the tourists on her hands. A white teenager walking the beach awkwardly in lime green flippers. An Asian girl in a yellow bikini sunning herself. Two fair skinned men, with wine glasses as though at a dinner party; one in a t-shirt and shorts, one in swim trunks only, advertising a hairy chest and a huge pinky-looking tattoo on his back. There was a single black tourist, easy to spot. She was in the shallow water wearing a straw hat and corralling two toddlers both weighted down with brightly coloured life vests.
Then there was him, the man whose eyes tracked her approach appreciatively. She didn’t dare hope he was scoping the store she carried in her arms. He surprised her, though, and not for the last time.
“How much for the crochet tams?” he asked when she was in hearing distance. She looked way up at his bald head and almost kept on walking. Anticipating it, he called, softly, “Sister.” She almost let him have it then, and not for his boldfaced lie about being interested in one of her tams when he had no locks that needed containing. It was the epithet, not so much endearment as expletive to her ears. She didn’t want any of that “Sister, Daughter, Auntie” shit; like they were family.
Her long dead relationship with Hope’s father made a lie of all that family shit. The sweet nothings he’d whispered to get her to spread her legs proving themselves to be the nothing they were once her stomach had started swelling. In the end, she’d had a crying baby boy and a harping mother to drown out even the memory of the endearments. The memory of it was about as sweet as a sour guava; especially with the reality of a now 15-year-old Hope and being still stuck under her mother’s roof.
It had been different, easier, when she’d still had a baby to nurse and comfort, who, in a way comforted her. This hard-tone, rebellious near-man was a different thing altogether. Once the boy had been stuck to her side, now even when he was right in front of her as she sweated and slapped at him, trying to beat sense into him, he felt miles away; and she knew him to be lost to her. She’d cried last night, in the dark, after her mother’s snores started filling the small house. When he came in she’d ripped off the white t-shirt that hung like a dress on him – the way all those boys he hung with wore it – and cut it up just as she had all his other white shirts. As if without this uniform, the White Shirt Gang, or whatever they called themselves, would deny him access to the ‘clubhouse’. Foolish actions for a woman who prided herself on accepting life as it was; as foolish as keeping him glued to her side by force. Well, trailing behind her, dragging his feet in the sand like a sulky five year old anyway.
“$80”, she told the tall man blocking out the sun in front of her, high balling him. “You still want it?” she challenged.
“I still want it,” he said, easily. “But the money up in my room.”
Then, she did start walking again, and he grabbed for her; she felt the graze of his fingers as she flinched instinctively away. He held his palms up, smile firmly in place.
“Serious serious,” he said. “You goin’ turn down good money? Look like you ain’t make one sale all day.”
“I not looking no charity sale,” Glory replied, though without conviction. On a day like this, she’d take a charity sale over no sale.
“No charity,” he said. “I just don’t want to catch sunstroke in this heat.”
She went with him to his room, not to accept the clear invitation in his eyes and not because she didn’t see through the ploy. Eighty dollars was $80 and would get her a step closer to a down payment on her own house. Besides with Hope there, she felt safe enough from the big man – Hector he said his name was – and herself. She allowed herself to admire the view: the smooth as velvet, dark dark skin that was her weakness; the bigness of him; the seductive smile and dancing eyes.
He was a talker. By the time they reached room 234, Glory had learnt that he was a guest of the resort for the summer. She didn’t follow calypso, but apparently he was a pretty well known one from neighbouring Montserrat; crowned King 10 times, he said. Didn’t mean much, she supposed; not like the crown came with much money. But she liked his voice, wondered if it still had the rumble of a bass drum when he sang.
He asked about the boy, and maybe she was sun-drunk – or just drunk on the idea of him – but she confessed her troubles; could be that they were just too close to the surface, and he’d asked the right question.
“He’ll grow out of it,” he said, looking her straight in the eye, “I did.” And she believed him.
The best thing about opening the door to Hector was how he’d taken Hope in hand. He’d relocated fully from Montserrat, already half-way there when they met; and soon he’d moved her out of her mother’s into their cozy place in the country where they shared one room, settled Hope into the other, and used the third as Hector’s home music studio. Every spare change he had went into buying equipment for that studio. When he wasn’t out on the water, he was working hotel gigs and selling the calypso CDs he produced in that studio. His CDs sold well, and the fish swam readily into his fish pots; and they lived comfortably. Because of him she’d quit the beach and started marketing her stuff to downtown boutiques. Many were reluctant to take local stuff, but those that took them did okay with them. When Hope graduated, barely eking through, he went out on the boat with Hector and seemed to settle down. When that red-skinned one, his closest buddy from the old neighbourhood, had ended up in prison, she’d offered a rare prayer of thanks up to God; for Hector, for getting her son out of a neighbourhood that had changed around her.
Her mom had predicted doom about her living in sin; but Glory figured her soul was better off with some distance between them. Her mother had died a few months after she moved out, and Glory had efficiently sent her off telling herself she felt nothing. Hector had coaxed the tears out of her the night after the funeral.
Glory heard her gate opening and closing, and stood, wanting to flee into the house. Ms. Joseph, her landlady came into view, a bucket in hand. She stopped short at finding Glory under the tree, then setting her face moved purposefully forward. Glory watched incredulously as without so much as a “Howdy Do” she started picking the mangoes, the ones the birds hadn’t got to.
She found her voice. “What you think you doing?”
“Picking mangoes off my tree,” was the prompt response.
Glory couldn’t believe her ears. Once again the world felt upside down; she was getting dizzy with it.
“Since when did the tree that Hector planted and I watered become your tree?” she demanded.
Ms. Joseph mumbled something nasty, and Glory didn’t need to hear it to know it had been about Hector. “What you say?” she demanded anyway.
“Look, Woman, this is my land,” Ms. Joseph said.
“Which we pay you for,” Glory interrupted.
“I would think two little marga mango is the last thing you’d have to worry ‘bout,” Ms. Joseph hurled at her.
Glory was breathing hard now. Usually, Hector was there to act as a buffer between her and the self-righteous owner of the property they rented. He knew how much the woman reminded her of her mother.
“Ms. Joseph,” she began, “I not looking no trouble. But I’ll pour kerosene in the root before I let you come in here and disrespect my home like this. You not touching one hair on this tree head, you hear me good.”
Ms. Joseph studied her as if trying to measure how serious she was. Like a dog with plenty bark, turned out her teeth were dull. She turned away, mumbling to herself about talking to her lawyer and getting people off her property that couldn’t bother to respect her. Her parting shot: “Bunch o’ criminals, all o’ you. I shoulda known you all wasn’t up to no good.”
For the first time since Hector’s death, and Hope and Morning Glory’s disappearance, Glory’s eyes felt wet. Even her armpits were sweaty; she could smell the rage pouring off of her. She brushed angrily at the tears.
If her mother was there, she imagined she’d be shaking her head reprovingly, that little self-satisfied twist to her lips; happy to be proven right. She’d warned her that Hector was no good. Glory had grown up hearing the sins of her own father, a man she’d seen maybe twice in her life. In her young adulthood, Hope’s father, whom the boy had seen maybe twice in his life, had been added to the song. Even support, common ground, felt like condemnation when put the right way.
Glory cried, and the ghost of the little girl curled into the corner of the pew that leaned toward the ground.
Glory remembered the first time they made love. He’d taken her to hear a band play up at Lookout Point; Lejah, a group of young guys rocking old Bob Marley tunes. She remembers feeling as stiff as clothes that had been starched and packed away in camphor balls. Her movements didn’t feel fluid, like maybe they had at some point when the rhythm kept time with her heartbeat. Every now and again, she lost the beat. It had been so long since she’d stood like this with a man’s arms around her and felt goose pimples rise on her skin, felt something stir inside. His erection pressing solidly, teasingly, into her from behind told her she wasn’t the only one affected by the closeness. She wanted to pull away, not given to giving up control; not since Hope’s father. Sensing it maybe, his arms tightened instinctively. He crooned “would you be loved” along with the singer in her ear and his chest rumbled against her back, and she felt sure she would lose control of herself right there. He played her as surely as he did that guitar of his, and the music inside her wanted to come out.
It did, later that night.
It was awkward that first time. After all, she hadn’t had sex, with anyone, since Hope’s father 15 years earlier, when she’d been a 17 year old girl who barely knew what she was doing. Her world had narrowed to her son and her dream of escaping her mother’s criticism in the years since. Few real friendships, no affection; not even casually. It hurt and her blood shone brightly on the used condom. But later that night, he played her again; and she discovered feelings she’d never known her body capable of experiencing. She flinched from it at first, this loss of control over her body’s reactions; twisted away from it, even as she curled into it, her body contorting comically. She almost wished for the pain of penetration again. She felt too naked. But she liked after, when he curled around her and, tired, she fell into sleep again.
In time, she got used to the feelings that felt too much like surrender, and learned, shyly, to give him the pleasure he deserved in return. In time, she felt comfortable with her body, even its lumps and ripples, and was less shy about drinking him in in all his glory. And he was glorious to look at.
Glory stormed into the house, tearing through Hector’s pockets, his drawers, knowing there was nothing to find. If he was guilty of what they said he was would he bring it here? Who washed the clothes, folded and put them away in the drawers? Could he be the man who had changed her life and the stranger they claimed? Could she have been so foolish? No. The only answer she could stomach. If the lie was true, she didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to lose her son, her man, and every good memory she had, at the same time. She might be able to survive their deaths – had, hadn’t she? She couldn’t lose everything in the process. What did you have when everything poured out of you?
Blood still hot, she found she couldn’t stop herself though, and didn’t until the room looked like a hurricane had blown through it.
There was a knock at the front door. She thought about not answering, hiding; like she and Hector and Hope did when Jehovah’s Witnesses were at the door. It was a joke between them, playing hide-and-seek like kids. She remembered with a bit of a hysterical giggle how once they’d been spotted through a window, and how he’d shamelessly straightened and gone to the door firmly sending the persistent Witness on her way.
She walked to the door. There was a young police officer there, his blue and bluer uniform ill fitting on his lanky frame. He was barely a boy; about Hope’s age. She felt sick looking at him, wanted to close the door, return to her room and curl up on the bed in the eye of the hurricane, clutch her memories close, seal them before they were taken away.
“Ma’am, we’ve been trying to call you,” the officer said. “But you not answering your phone.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“We need to take the van in as evidence,” he said. Hector’s van, the white van she’d been driving the first time she’d seen the headline. “What for?” she asked.
“It’s part of the investigation, ma’am,” he said, too new to arrogantly demand – as another officer might – that she just do as she was told. He probably had a mother about her age.
“Hector was at sea, my son is still missing at sea,” she demanded. “What his van have to do with that? You all just want to look busy, pretend you all doing something? Why not just do something and bring my son home to me?”
His spine straightened a bit, “Ma’am, I just need the keys.”
Her skin tingled; goose pimples rose. The rage and fear threatened to pour out of her, to pummel this boy until he was bloodied at her feet. She turned from him, but didn’t move to get the keys or anything else.
She walked away, not able to stand more of his shy authority. She went into the studio, where the walls were soundproofed, pink and fluffy like cotton candy. Memories rushed in; her sitting in a corner of the room while Hector rolled, pushing off on the chair, from one end of the narrow room to the other competently manhandling the various pieces of equipment. The only thing she understood about any of it was the music that came out. “What you think?” He would ask after playing her a new tune.
“Wonderful!” she’d say.
He’d sigh, secretly pleased, “you always say that.”
“And I always mean it,” she’d say.
Through the still-open door between the studio and living room, Glory faintly heard the van engine turn over. Seems the boy in the man’s uniform had found the keys.
“My father was a musician,” Hector told her. “He played trumpet with one of the old time brass bands. Fished for a living. Drank himself to death. My mom spent her life hunched over other people’s laundry and sweating over their ironing. I used to have to help her hang them out, pick them up, fold; so much so the neighbours teased that she was turning me into an auntie man. I went to school with some of these same people, on scholarship, though they always acted like they were better than me. I knew two things though: I knew what their underwear looked like and I knew that I would never be my father or my mother.”
The story of him and his mother always reminded her of her and Hope, the way, when he was younger she would teach him how to crochet and have him help her thread the beads. She remembered feeling happy, being able to share that with him. Her mom had been a huckster, buying vegetables off the Dominica boats and reselling. She told herself that it was progress; that even though she, too, was a vendor she made what she sold. She was delighted at her son’s desire to take in the only tangible thing she had to give him. “Mammy, show me how to do that,” he’d say in that high little voice. That hadn’t lasted past his first year of high school though.
Hector had never washed or ironed, either, in the seven years they’d been together. But he had become a fisherman and musician like his father. Whatever demons had chased his father, however, he’d never let them in. And he stood straight, his shoulders back, his face open, in a way life had never allowed either of his parents. He ate life up. Took huge mouthfuls of it, chewed thoroughly, swallowed, and belched. Glory dared hope that he met death like he met life; fully and fearlessly.
She hoped that Hope, who was just discovering who he was; didn’t see death coming.
When Glory went back to the living room, she found the front door open. She closed it gently, picked up the phone. “Hello,” she told the person on the other end, “I’d like to place an ad in the classifieds. I have studio equipment to sell…”
Later, just as the sky lit up with the amber glow of sunset, Glory stepped out of her back door, heading purposefully for the Mango Tree and church pew with a cutlass and canister of kerosene in hand.
The dream continued to tease her, but each night the heavenly light grew fainter as did the laughter, and the footsteps padding away from her.
•••Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of Dancing Nude in the Moonlight and The Boy from Willow Bend. Her writing’s featured in Ma Comère, Caribbean Writer, Calabash, Sea Breeze, and Women Writers. She’s won a 2008 Breadloaf fellowship and 2004 UNESCO Honour Award.