Syria is on the phone when she hears her mother’s scream and she rears up. Her brother Jude moves fast, his bedroom closer. She is right after him. In those four walls that close like a vice Syria swallows the sight: her mother collapsed on the floor, umber knees on umber carpet, the pot and its boiling contents that have been tipped, the damp darkened puddle that bleeds across the sheets and the steam that rises.
Syria turns her head. She sees books. There are many of them. On a dark wood shelf, filled to its brim and leaning against the wall. A wall that her mother said she’d repaint: “I hate all this white.” At the foot of the wall is the umber carpet and from the carpet her mother cries. Bleating, arms extended (Syria thinks) to pull something in. Or maybe it is to push something back. And standing on the carpet is her father too. His breaths match her mother’s cries.
Before her mother cried into the night, it had been day, summer, and hot. Syria sat between her Mother’s legs, her hair being braided. She liked the way her Mother took her time mapping the landscape of her scalp: lines of latitude, then of longitude that overlapped each other, making strand on strand of winding road. Her mother—if in a good mood when she was asked—would destroy whole road works and intersections. Then she’d start again, building the roads wider, amused at Syria’s choice of route and direction.
Syria sees her mother’s face and neck. She sees her scarlet flesh. Sees the neck loll, sees her Mother slump.
Jude sees too and opens his mouth. It looks like a chasm and silence comes out. Jude squats down and reaches out; then pulls himself back; then out then back. Syria watches as Jude plays and replays, his hysteria mounting. She remembers last year when he had a ringed fungus on his arm that took forever to heal because he’d kept it covered. She’d sneak up to his room late at night and peep through the crack of his door. He’d just sit there, arm exposed, looking down in scorn. For some reason this thought makes her scared and angry, so she walks over and slaps him.
Now Jude is on the go. He’s tender with their mother and when Syria blinks he has her in the tub: there’s the tub’s faucet, there’s the running water, there is Jude’s hands cupped. And there is their mother; she is smoking from the inside out.
Before the summer day, before it had been hot; it was early morning. Syria was standing in water waiting to be drowned. At eleven, the youngest of the Church’s Easter group, Syria stood proud. Their junior pastor had told her, told them all that through water they’d be cleansed. What she heard was, one Syria would go under and another would come out.
She’d liked baptismal classes, believed in what they told her, believed in what she’d learned: That Jesus suffered for the sins of man—this was known as the cross; that the other way a person could be baptized was by burning fire; that man, born to original sin like Jesus had to suffer and carry his own cross.
As the sun began its walk across the water, Syria looked to shore at the congregation, where her parents stood, where the light seemed to have gathered. She also saw the cast of their long unmoving shadows that looked like different people and felt for a moment that she was their child. Maybe the shadows were her real parents and not the two people stitched to the light.
Before the baptism, before the morning, it had been night. Syria’s father sat on their porch, in his low pitch, talking. She noticed, startled, that winter had laid siege to his head and looked then to her mother who stood, hushed, across from him. Her hair was a curtain of color giraffing down her neck and Syria, bewildered; staring at them felt a sharp attrition: the swift shift of tectonic plates.
Syria knew it was not just his head captured by winter. His mind skidded too. On Sundays he struggled to hold the thread of his sermons, swinging, like the church incense—gentle to fervent; changing in pattern so suddenly that its seams would ruck and gather. No one objected; silence congregated in the crowd. And Sunday after Sunday they covered his transgressions like footprints in the snow.
Syria looks at her Father, on the floor now, next to the hot stain. She wonders if what’s happened has just happened to her; or, if it’s happened to another: Another someone who lives on a small island, in a small home, up a dirt road. To someone else who stands and looks in their Father’s eyes, to another someone who’s surprised that he looks just the same.
Syria thinks of Jude and of how he gave the end of year speech for his class. He’d talked about the start of the rest of their lives. When he’d ended Syria had felt a burning in her stomach and knew she was jealous of him. He’d made it sound like some path not for everyone, like he was going somewhere and she couldn’t come.
Syria has watched Jude all since his speech. She takes notes of what he does: June 27—Jude decides he won’t go to church. July 11—Jude gets a summer job. Aug 1—Jude comes home from dancing and sneaks back out to meet a girl from the club. She writes this down a day late when she hears Jude say to a friend that the girl polished his front with her back like an apple. At night she takes her notes out and memorizes them. When her time comes, Jude will be her map.
Syria does not take notes of this night or the nights after. Not about the way her mother later sleeps, body curled in forgetting like a sweet cashew. Not about the gummy feel of stripped flesh against gauze or how its smell—years and distances later—would still cling to her. Not about the acute embarrassment that was all she felt when her father, in tears, said he had not meant it. Not about how, as their father fled, no one but Jude noticed the rank fear that ran down their mother’s legs.
Instead she thinks of that someone—on that island, in that house, up that dusty road—and feels sorry for their family. Quartered and drawn, scattered to the wind, never to be summed. Instead she thinks of that someone and feeling nothing at all buries the seeds of this night.
Originally featured in “A Sudden & Violent Change”, a cross-disciplinary exhibition at the Hub, March 12th-31st, as part of Transforming Spaces 2010 in Nassau, The Bahamas.
•••Christi Cartwright lives, works and writes in The Bahamas. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Sussex and her graduate degree from the University of the West Indies, Mona.