“Miss Bailey,” a voice called, accompanied by a tap-tap-tapping on our gate. “Miss Bailey! Please come. Mr. Morris dead.”
I recognized the voice. It belonged to Miss Morris who lived just up the hill from us. She was an old woman; much older than my mother. Mr. Morris had been even older. As far I knew he’d always been old. Now, presumably, he was dead. I heard my mother scurrying about in the kitchen and then out the door. Standing on my bed, I looked through the open slat windows toward our gate. There was Miss Morris, wringing her hands in her apron, waiting as my mother hurried to her.
I couldn’t make out what was being said, but Miss Morris was pointing and gesturing and, it seemed to me, she was crying. Mama put an arm around the older woman’s shoulder and gave her a pat on the back. When Miss Morris turned to go back up the hill, Mama came back to the house. I watched the tiny old woman trudge back to her little cottage. Her reddish-brown skin clung tightly to her bones. Each step she took appeared to require great effort. She was so thin; a strong breeze might carry her off the mountain, sending her sailing across the valley below. Her wavy, greying hair was pulled back as it usually was, but this morning there seemed to be several strands sticking out in odd directions. Miss Morris normally looked a bit frail to me, but on that day she was almost feeble.
“David,” Mama called to me from the kitchen. “Come out here. I goin’ up Miss Morris house. Mr. Morris dead this mornin’ and she need me help.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, coming out of my bedroom.
There was no use telling my mother that I could hear perfectly well through the open windows when people were yelling things from the road. Grown people liked to pretend that they had more privacy than was actually the case. By now, all the neighbours surely knew that Mr. Morris had died. People liked to say that the “bush have ears”, explaining how gossip spread about. Even as a boy I knew that bush didn’t have ears. Voices carry on the mountain, especially with everyone living in their open-air houses and shouting in the road. There were few secrets in our neighbourhood.
“I’ll prob’ly be gone for a while, David. You stay out of trouble. When Daddy come home, you tell him ‘bout Mr. Morris. Yuh ‘ear me?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll tell him.”
When Mama went out the door, I stood in the kitchen and waited a few minutes. I gave her enough time to get out of sight before I ran out into the yard. Devon, my best friend from next door, was already waiting under our giant rubber tree, just as I’d expected. The rubber tree was our usual meeting spot. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t already know about Mr. Morris and, of course, he did.
“Yuh ‘ear say Mistah Morris dead?” Devon asked, though he most certainly knew that I did.
“Yeah, mon. Mi know a’ready. Mama gone up dere fi see.”
Neither of us had to ask what we should do next. Instinctively, the way only young boys can do, we knew what the other was thinking. Without a word, we left the yard and darted across the road. Disappearing into the bush, we followed a path that would wind around to the back of the Morris’ little wooden cottage. When you’re going to sneak a look at a dead man, it would hardly do to announce yourself at the front gate. That sort of impertinence would get you little more than a box on the ears.
Down through the gully and up the hill, we made our way into Mr. Morris’ back garden. We’d snuck into his yard this way many times. At the back of his property were his prized coffee trees. The green coffee beans were the perfect ammunition for the homemade blowguns we made from plastic pipes. Mr. Morris was the only person in our area with coffee trees, so when the season came, we would creep up to grab as many handfuls as we could before he, inevitably, spied us. Each time it was the same. Shaking his machete in the air, he would rain down obscenities on us, careful to let us know in no uncertain terms what type of worthless children come and rob the fruits of another’s labours. Each time, we would panic and tear through the bush, making our get away down the gully side. Once in relative safety, we would laugh and congratulate ourselves, pretending that we’d never been scared. As furious as he would get, Mr. Morris never told our parents. Maybe he had been a young boy once, though it barely seemed possible.
When Devon and I reached Morris’ yard, we hesitated. Looking around, we almost expected the little white man to jump from behind a banana tree. Not this time, though. Mr. Morris was dead, a fact we intended to confirm with our own eyes. We stood idle for a few moments that seemed like hours. Naturally, we wanted to see the dead body. We’d never seen one before. Mustering our courage, however, required a bit of time. Devon picked a guava from a nearby tree, as we shuffled about the garden. Mr. Morris had every manner of fruit growing in his yard. After a life spent in agriculture, he had retired as a gardener. People said he could put rock stone in the earth and it would grow. That was a strange thing to say, I thought, but Mr. Morris was a strange kind of man.
While we loafed about, I remembered one particular day when I was walking home from school. I had passed by Mr. Morris sitting on a wall talking to Mr. Lewis from down the road. I was surprised to hear the men speaking to each other in what I thought sounded like Spanish. It was a peculiar scene, these two Jamaican men, one white and one black, talking in Spanish, as if it were a normal thing to be doing. It was peculiar enough that I reported it to Daddy as we ate supper that evening. According to Daddy, when Mr. Lewis and Mr. Morris were young men they had worked the cane fields in Cuba. That’s where they learned to speak Spanish. Even now, they spoke it to each other from time to time, especially when they didn’t want anyone to know what they were saying. Later, I’d told Devon that we should go cut cane in Cuba, so we could learn Spanish. Then we could talk all type of slackness and never get caught.
Devon was a year older than me, so he knew things that I didn’t know. He told me how no one goes to cut cane in Cuba anymore, but he did have an uncle that worked the cane fields in Florida. The problem was, most of the workers there were Jamaicans and Haitians, so there wasn’t much chance of learning Spanish. His uncle told him that the Jamaicans didn’t get along well with the Haitians and there was lots of quarrelling and fighting. Plus, cutting the sugar cane is hard, hard work. That didn’t sound like much fun after all, so we decided we wouldn’t go foreign to cut cane when we grew up. We’d have to find something else to do when we went to foreign.
After eating our fair share of guavas, we ran out of reasons to procrastinate further. If we were going to see a dead body, we’d have to get on with it. We moved slowly to the back of the plank board cottage, careful not to disturb the chickens pecking around the yard. This was the only wooden house in our neighbourhood. Most of us lived in stucco houses, built of concrete blocks. Farther down the hill, back off the road, some families lived in tiny shacks made of zinc, bamboo and whatever else they could find. Only the Morris’ lived in a proper wooden house, although the brightly painted colours had long since faded. Mr. Morris was too old to be out painting his house every time the sun bleached the colour. The last time he got a hole in his zinc roof, Daddy climbed up there to mend it for him. Mr. Morris was a proud man, though, so he didn’t make a habit of asking people to paint or fix his house. Mostly, it just deteriorated, much like he and Miss Morris.
On the back part of the house, there were small gaps in the boards that Devon and I thought we might be able to see through. In truth, though, we didn’t know what we would see. Neither of us had ever been inside the Morris’ house. I couldn’t recall anyone going inside the house, except for Miss Morris’ niece. She sometimes came to visit from Spanish Town, but not very often. Neighbours stopped by occasionally and talked outside and, of course, children would sneak around stealing coffee and fruit, but Mr. and Miss Morris were alone most of the time. We were about to find out what the inside looked like, though, as we crept right up to the back wall.
There wasn’t enough room for both of us to spy at once, so Devon went first. Squatting down on his knees, he turned his head sideways to squint through the crack in the wall. After only a few seconds, he jumped up, falling backwards over himself. I held my breath; looking into Devon’s wide eyes, sure that he’d given us away. We froze in place, waiting to see if we’d been detected. When no one came to chase us away, we scurried back into the garden.
“Mi see ‘im,” Devon burst out, barely able to maintain a whisper. “Mi see him ‘pon the bed, like say ‘im sleepin’. Bwoy, him look still and white like a duppy. Go look. Him dead fi true.”
“Wha’ Miss Morris and mi mother ah do? Yuh see dem?”
“Mi nah know. Dem jus’ a walk ‘round and ting. Mr. Morris ah lay down ‘pon the bed with him hand by him side, so. Him is a real, real dead man, David.”
Quietly, I crept over to look through the crack in the wall. The light inside was dim, so it took my eyes several seconds to adjust. There was my mother and Miss Morris leaning over the bed, blocking my view of everything but Mr. Morris’ legs. He was dressed in black trousers and what looked like his Sunday shoes, though I’d never seen him in church.
“You don’t have another one?” I heard my mother asking.
“No, is the only white one mi have,” Miss Morris answered. “It will have to do. Mek sure it tight.”
Mama seemed to be struggling with something, bent over Mr. Morris’ dead body there. I wished she would move so I could get a better look. In the meantime, I glanced around at what little I could see of the room. An old weathered bureau stood against one wall. On top were a few faded pictures in tarnished frames. One photo was a white man and woman, with a little baby. It couldn’t be Mr. Morris. The picture looked aged, but not old enough to be a young Mr. Morris. I was reminded of something I’d heard Mama and Daddy talking about once.
“What a shame,” my mother had said. “You know dat Mr. Morris have two children by him first wife? Both of them gone a foreign and nevah set foot back in Jamaica. Not once dem come look for dem father.”
That must be one of his children in the picture, I thought. When I grow up and move to foreign, I’ll come back and visit my parents, I told myself. I wondered if his children even knew he was dead. How could they? The Morris’ didn’t own a phone and he’d just died that morning. I guessed that they wouldn’t come, anyway. When you move to foreign you probably get too busy to think about your old father, sitting on wall down there in Jamaica talking Spanish with his old time friends. Maybe you forget what it’s like to walk up and down gully side, picking guava and stealing people’s coffee beans. Some people may just want to grow up and forget about all of that; just move to foreign where they don’t have to sleep in tin roof houses with faded paint on the walls. In America or England, I was sure; they wouldn’t put your old, dead daddy on the bed and tie handkerchief around his head to keep his mouth shut.
As it turned out, that’s what my mother had been doing. When she finally stood up straight and stepped away from the bed, she declared that it should be tight enough. I assumed she meant the handkerchief, tied under Mr. Morris’ chin and over his head top. Now that she was out of the way, I had my first good look at a dead man. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm that Devon had shown. Maybe I’d been thinking too much about worthless children that move away and forget their parents. I don’t know, but looking at Miss Morris, sitting heavy in her chair, wringing her hands, it was hard to get excited about seeing a dead body.
“Miss Bailey,” the old woman was saying. “Yuh can stay here when mi go make funeral arrangement? Some a de people dem swear say Mr. Morris have nuff money hide ‘way here. I don’ waan nobody come in mi house, Miss Bailey. I don’ waan nobody come in and trouble mi tings dem.”
“Yes, yes, of course. I’ll stay right here. When Mr. Bailey come home, I’ll make him carry you go town in him van.”
Devon was poking me in the arm, demanding another turn to look. I kissed my teeth at him and motioned for him to move. “Cha, man,” I whispered. “Me nuh done yet. G’way nuh.”
I was looking at Mr. Morris, lying so still on his bed. He looked odd, but not just from having that handkerchief tied around his head. He was whiter than usual; a little blue here and there. Though Mr. Morris was, in fact, a white man, years of working in the sun had given his skin a tanned, weathered look. In death, his complexion was pale and ashy. It made me wonder what I’d look like when I died. I didn’t know how old Mr. Morris was, but he’d not been as frail as his wife. He was lean, with tough, sinewy arms. When he moved, you could see his veins and muscles rippling under his taut skin. Daddy once said that Mr. Morris was strong like an ox. It was only his old bones that kept him from moving around like a young man. Now he didn’t look so strong at all. He looked tired. I wasn’t sure how a dead man could look tired, but he did.
“Come nuh, David,” Devon was talking too loud. “Mek mi get a turn.”
Aggravated, I crawled out of the way so Devon could have another look. It wasn’t fair of me to take so long. I knew that, but there was no telling when I’d have another chance to see a dead body. We were too young to know that, over the years, we would see more than enough. Anyway, it was my mother in there with Miss Morris. Tonight, while in bed, I could eavesdrop on her and Daddy as they talked about everything that happened today. She might even say something about those worthless children that don’t give a damn how their daddy died in his little wood house with cracks round the back where little boys can peep through. As I let Devon take his turn spying through the slats, I felt even less excited than before. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but I was feeling a little lonely.
Mr. Morris had never talked much to us neighbourhood children. Most of the time, he just yelled and shook his machete at us. Admittedly, that was only when we were thieving things from his yard. Still, something seemed wrong about taking this for a game, coming here to peep through wallboards at the dead man in his bed. Meanwhile, there was poor old Miss Morris sitting in that chair like she might never get up. I went and sat down under a mango tree, waiting for Devon. When he finally got an eye full, we walked toward the path that would lead back through the bush, through the gully and on to our houses. As we passed the coffee trees at the back of the garden, Devon looked at me with a mischievous grin.
“David,” he nodded toward the trees. “When coffee time come again, bwoy, we can get whole heap ah coffee beans fi we blow gun dem. Nobody ah go stop us now.”
“Yeah,” I answered. “We’ll see, but mi think say mi ah get too big fi dem tings, yuh know?”
He just shrugged at me and wrinkled his nose up. Devon was a year older than me, so sometimes he knew things that I didn’t know. Walking back down the gully path that day, leaving Mr. Morris’ little bleached out wooden cottage behind us; it occurred to me for the first time that sometimes, maybe, I knew things that Devon didn’t know.