Drinking Water / janice lynn mather

The pastor spoke on the subject of witchcraft. Seven women got up midway through. They moved quickly and noisily, disrupting the service with the banging of Bible edges and hymnals against pew corners as they departed. They left with purses, notebooks, small children, cushions, fans. They were not just slipping out to go to the bathroom.

I sat in the back row with Michael and Jeanne, a girl who came with us sometimes. They whispered to each other through the whole service. If the pastor had not spoken so loudly that week, and been given generally to rasping and wheezing and respiratory theatrics, I would not have heard him myself.

“The Lorddd-hha! Has-a never looked kindly on the ways of the HEATHEN!”

“Amen!”

“All right, now!” A few regulars added fuel to the flame.

“Now I know some a us know people, I’m not gonna say we do it ourselves, I’m not gonna give-A voice-A to such-A wickedness, but we all know people, don’t we?” He shifted from foot to foot, growing anxious.

“Speak, preacher.”

“Yes.”

“Mmmmhmmm.”

He wiped his forehead with a tissue. “We all know people who-A dabble in the Obeah, who-A deal in the Voodoo, as they call it in some places!”

The church murmured. He was working up to something.

“You know what God-A call it? You know what He calls it?”

Beside me, Michael had leaned over and scribbled something on the top of the paper Jeanne had balanced on top of her hymnal.

“He calls-A it The Devil!” His voice reached a new pitch.

There was a moment, just as Devil left his lips, just before the congregation was about to leap into amen-ing and that’s right-ing, when there was a small silence. Perhaps people were waiting. Perhaps they assumed he was taking a breath, that there was more to come. Perhaps everyone was simply preparing to agree at exactly the same moment. In any event, small silence; no one gave a retort, no one clapped, no small children squeaked or complained about being kept indoors so long in lace clothing or tight shoes on a hot day. It was silent. And in that silence, Jeanne had glanced at whatever Michael wrote on her paper, rolled her eyes, and sucked her teeth.

It was a long, juicy suck-teeth. She must have had a mint in her mouth earlier, for there was plenty of spit around her teeth and tongue to stretch the tschuups into a great mutated single syllable that extended across ten or twelve seconds. Jeanne realized both her volume and her unfortunate timing when it was too late; the suck-teeth could not be halted, it had to run its course. It did; the noise elongated, sprung back on itself, and bounced off the backs of pews and sides of walls, and off the dark rafters above. Mr. Adams, who sat in front of us, his dust-grey head bobbing in gentle repose, snapped up to attention. A fuller, new silence followed the end of it, and this was broken quickly, when her uncle, an usher fortuitously standing in the aisle nearby, leaned across three people and smacked her firmly in the back of the head. At the front of the church I could see the back of Mummy’s head, under her blue-netted hat, firm and front-facing.

“I can-A SEE,” the pastor began again, “that some amongst us disagree!”

“No, no, no!”

“Keep going, pastor!” The crowd was with him again, awake with indignation.

“But I TELL you, this is a problem that is amongst us, that even within our midst, there are Obeah men, there are Obeah women, there are practitioners of the Voodoo. I know what you say; not in my Bahamas, not in my Christian nation, not with all these churches we have!”

“That’s right, brother.” The woman at the end of our row, a younger woman, maybe not that much older than Michael, shouted it out, so her voice carried up through the building. She shot a withering look down the pew; it was directed towards Jeanne, I’m sure, but it seemed to land only as far as me. I looked away.

“But you can’t tell me that with all the immigrants, with all these illegal immigrants we have, that there is no Voodoo in the Bahamas!”

“Speak it, brother.”

“That’s right!”

“And I can-a tell you, when the Israelites got mixed up with those other nations, with the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Amalekites and the this-ites and the that-ites, they got TURNED AWAY from their God—”

—at this point the first woman left through a side door, which creaked both on opening and closing—

“—and they got led into the worshipping of idols and the leading away from the goodness of the glory of their God—”

—a second left now, this time through the heavy doors at the back—

“—and the sleeping with the enemy, and the sparing of the lives of those they were told to slaughter, and the point is they were not following the WORD of GOD!”

The largest group yet, an entire pew in the centre of the church, rose up. Their high heeled shoes should have echoed down the hardwood floor, but the red plush carpet down the aisles ate up the noise. Still, they made quite a ruckus. “Mummy, he ain finish talk yet,” a little girl complained in her best Talk Quiet In Church whisper. Her mother used a free hand to speed up the girl’s progress for the door. They were mostly quite fat, the women. The church, again, was quiet, limelighting the rustle of stiff-starched fabrics, stockinged thigh against thigh.

“I’m running people outta the church today. You see that? You see that, flock?”

The flock saw.

“But I’m just getting warmed up!” he rasped, stepping out from behind the podium as the doors slammed shut. “Whooo, can you all feel it getting hot here in the Lord’s house? The words are hot, but you know what? The truth keepeth me cool.”

It was getting hot. In theory, the room was air conditioned, so the windows were kept firmly shut, but it seemed like midday was kicking in, even though we were only 45 minutes into the 10 a.m. service. The room was seeming to spin. I could feel it expanding, contracting, contracting. I reached for Michael’s bulletin, which dangled from his fingers, and used it to try to move the air around my face. The Spiderman he had doodled around one edge wiggled slightly in front of my eyes. I leaned back into the pew. At the end of the row, the young woman shifted in disapproval. Up front, the pastor still spoke. People murmured and spoke their agreement. I looked up at the fan, spinning, spinning. I closed my eyes.

.

“That was some service, eh?” Mummy said over dinner later that afternoon. “Pastor lit the church right up.

“Mmph,” Daddy said, even though he had, as was usual, come in for the opening prayer, sung the first three hymns, then disappeared until some time after church let out, when he was found in the car with the windows down, napping.

“What did you learn this week, Michael?” Mummy helped our father to some more peas and rice, although his plate was still half full. Michael muttered something or other to the bones in front of him, pushed off to one side. Mummy picked up the rice spoon again and ladled more onto his plate, too. “Nothing? You wasn’t listening, eh? Too busy disrupting the service. Eh?”

“No, Ma’am,” he murmured into his refurbished dish.

“I don’t think Jeanne will be riding with us again,” she said to Daddy. To me she said “How about you?”

“It was interesting.” The heat had gotten the better of me. I hadn’t heard the last hour of his sermon, and I hoped she wouldn’t ask for a summary. “Could you pass the rice?”

“Hmph,” Mummy said, putting down the spoon.

.

That Tuesday afternoon, the earth moved. It was too far away for us to feel it, though the news brought warnings. For hours, hushed tones, fearful words. Tsunami? Tidal wave?

When nothing happened, when the world ceased to cave in and wash over and wash us away, we settled back into business as usual. Daddy went back out under the hood of the car. Michael, under his earphones, started on his homework. Mummy got up from in front of the television and went back into the kitchen to make us a late dinner. “Thank God for sparing us,” she said on the phone to somebody, as she rinsed vegetables to steam. “To God be the glory, He truly looks after His children. My, my, it’s sad, though.”

.

Later that night, I tiptoed out into the living room. I could hear both our parents snoring, each in their own tone and pitch. I couldn’t sleep.

The television lit Michael’s face up in starts and stops. It was a rerun, a movie on the women’s channel, something hectic. A young girl was cowering in terror while someone much larger loomed in the foreground, only their shadow visible. He stared at the television as though he did not realize I was there.

“Michael?” I said, sitting down on the armrest.

“Hmm?” He barely turned.

“What this is?”

“Some movie.” He stirred on the sofa. There was an ad on now. Exuberant women celebrating the effectiveness of air-sanitizing spray. I stood up, and wondered if I felt the carpet shift beneath me. Nothing seemed certain. I lifted myself up, one foot, one foot, to go back to bed.

.

Mummy came back from Wednesday night Bible study with the news that the church was having a donations drive. Sheets, towels, money, clothes. She began gathering things together right away. The days stretched forward. On Sunday, the pastor spoke about the importance of compassion, mercy, love. He spoke with his usual passion, but less dancing. The church was full. I tried to recognize the seven ladies who had walked out the previous week, but I could not pick them out from all the mothers in straight skirts and stockings and stiff-starched clothing.

.

That afternoon the heat in the house was thick. We ate without enthusiasm. Daddy went to lay down in two chairs on the front porch. It was Michael’s week to wash dishes. He made an enthusiastic start while Mummy wrapped up the food, then retreated to the TV when she disappeared into her room for a bath. I lay down in front of the glass door. Heat seemed to filter in right through the screen. Michael flicked past channels, lingering on a news special on the earthquake. Then Mummy screamed.

Michael and I both shot up; we ran for the room, and I banged on bathroom door. I could hear her inside; she was making a low, moaning noise as though she was hurt. “Mummy, you alright?” I rattled the knob. It wouldn’t turn.

“You fall? You okay?” Michael was calling from behind me. “Mummy, open the door, you okay?” More words than space in the sentence. I banged on the door. Inside, I could hear her moving around.

“It’s alright,” she said in a voice that was not. The knob clicked open.

“You go,” Michael said. I let myself in.

She was at the sink. Behind us, I could hear the tub filling, water splashing into water. She had started to undress already; her shirt was on the counter. I had never seen my mother in only her bra before. For a moment, I forgot fear, and was embarrassed.

“What happen?”

She pointed at the toilet. I didn’t understand. It was filled with blood. I said “Are you dying?” It was a stupid thing to say.

She pointed at the bathtub. I turned to look at it.

It was full of red, too. The tap, still on, gushed red. Red rushed into the tub and splashed up onto the lower tiles. This was not from my mother, this red, this—blood. I looked at her; she was shaking. I looked up at the ceiling, its ordinary white.

It was not only in the bathroom that this was happening. In the kitchen, our father, who had been unaware of the commotion, was bent over the sink, retching. Beside him was a glass half full of what could have been juice, if we had kept juice in the house. The 5 gallon bottle by the fridge was stained the same way. I ran outside and turned on the hose. It stuttered, then gushed; it was as if an enormous vein had been slashed, spraying life into the afternoon.

.

And it was not only our home or our yard; the news told us that. We went to school and work Monday, and everyone was quiet, keeping fuzzy teeth and night breath private, faces unwashed, underarms sprayed with deodorant but underneath, ripe.

It did not go away. The rain fell clear and pooled crimson. Clothing was either worn and worn until it stank, or emerged from the washer stained bright.

The red itself did not smell, the way blood would. Michael said it wasn’t blood, it couldn’t be because it didn’t taste like blood, didn’t taste at all. It was simply red, and thicker than water; something like Poinciana petals steeped in milk.

The same could not be said of our food, which we now ate off dishes wiped down with rubbing alcohol, and, when that ran out, with Dettol. Even the best meal of macaroni and chicken and broccoli and beets becomes bitter when it smells like a nursing home.

New water shipped in from Andros began to tinge as it drew near Nassau. The barges stopped coming the second week. The price of juice and soda, which remained untinged, shot up to $6 a can, then $8. Those who could fled for family islands; the problem had not spread to them, it seemed. In Nassau, even private wells and unopened bottles had been stained the same strange hue.

.

On the third Sunday after the invasion, Daddy opted to stay home. “I ain goin in that place to go sit up with all them sweaty armpits in polyester suits,” he declared over breakfast. Mummy said nothing.

Michael drove us back on the way home. “Let’s stop by the beach,” I said on a whim, because the ocean water was still clear, although undrinkable. He swung down onto Prince Charles, and we followed it to its end. He parked right at the edge of the sea wall.

“I ain getting out,” Mummy said, cracking her door open. She had eased off her shoes, and reclined her seat. Michael rolled his window down.

I opened my door and got out. I shed my shoes, and my socks. Bunched up, the lace part was not visible, only the grey-stained toe.

“Don’ get them dirty,” Mummy said, listlessly. I tossed them into the back seat.

I walked away from the car, around a few other vehicles parked out there, also early from church, or people who hadn’t gone. I walked down the steps. The concrete was hot under my arches; the sand after offered welcome give.

Closer to the water, the sand grew firm too. I stepped in. The tide was neither high nor low, but seemed to be coming in. I could easily see through the few inches to the bottom. It looked good enough to drink, and it was cool.

There was a noise from above—a seagull or something, I’m not sure—and I looked up. I couldn’t see the bird. Behind me, a dog barked, and I could hear that Michael had put the radio on.

Out to sea, out at the horizon, the water was darker where it deepened and where the seaweed began. I walked a little further into the sea. The water lapped at my legs. I wiggled my toes, and looked down to see the sand kick up around them.

Around my legs, where my skin touched the water, redness was beginning to seep, to bleed into the clear. Later in life, I would come to see how much this was like getting your period in a pool in high school, seeing the red coming out of you, out of your actual self, and yet not wanting to believe, swimming away and finding, in horror, that it follows you. I did that then, I turned for the shore, which seemed much further away now.

I ran, but you know well how water, cooling, smoothing, soothing, slows you down. I ran and barely moved, and as I ran, the red was thickening, was following me. I screamed for my mother, and the shoreline seemed to be getting further and further away, and the red was getting thicker, and it was spreading wider, wider now, lapping up to touch where the waves and sand met, sinking, seeping into the grains. It was like that day at church; I was feeling hot, weak. I wanted to shout for my mother, or for Michael. I was sure they could see that I was struggling to reach the shore, and that the water all around me was like split tomatoes. I pushed and pushed for the shore, and it did not want to come. They were up there in the car. I could not see their faces through the glare of sun on the front glass.

•••

Janice Lynn Mather lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada, but will always be a Nassau gal.

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