Coal / olive senior

It was only after they decided Boy wasn’t coming back, that Sarah thought it was all the deaths that had caused it. Made him the way he was, caused him to run away. For nobody knew what could have made Boy leave the only real home he had ever known. Where, everybody said, he was so well looked after, treated like a king by Sarah and Doll. Who else would have taken in a deaf and dumb boy? Sarah had got tired of correcting people, telling them that Boy wasn’t deaf, or dumb, though it is true he didn’t speak. But that didn’t stop people from calling him Dummy and treating him like an idiot and shouting when they spoke to him. Yes, it was the deaths he had so closely encountered in his short life, Sarah said one night out of the blue, as if the thought had just struck her.

She lowered the week-old newspaper she was reading aloud from and stared at Doll over her glasses. ‘I bet you anything something happened inside him when he helped me pull Pops out of the water.’

Doll was half-asleep in the old armchair, lulled by Sarah’s reading. Jerked awake by the sudden change in tone, she found herself distracted by how much like her mother Sarah looked in the light cast from the Home Sweet Home lamp on the dining table, her beautiful curly hair pulled severely back, her mother’s gold-rimmed glasses perched on her nose. Sarah is turning old before she is even properly a young lady. This thought came so suddenly to Doll, it brought tears to her eyes and, alarmed at such a thing, she sat up straight and listened to what Sarah was saying. Something about Boy.

‘After all, remember he was there alone when his Granny died? A whole day. That poor little boy. And then he was there with his dead Grandfather too. We never did find out about that.’

Doll chupsed in her usual way and sank back into the armchair. She didn’t bother to point out that right now the whole world was a dead-house since a quarrel among those white people broke out that she for one didn’t understand. World War, they called it. The Second. So there was one before? How these people stupid so?

The fighting was far away it was true, in England and Germany and places like that, and in ships at sea, which is something Doll didn’t really understand. But that didn’t matter. Even boys they knew were over there, fighting; the young men from their district had merrily rushed off to join Contingent when the Big Men came around to ask who would fight for King and Country.

Doll was glad she had no boy children to act so foolish but she kept her thoughts to herself. For war fever had caught hold of everyone, even the rich women who were busy holding knitting bees and giving their jewellery and money to this fund to buy a battleship or maybe it was an airplane. Doll was disgusted that even Sarah had got caught up in the foolishness and had scoured the house and land for metal that they were busy collecting for the ‘war effort’. Cho! Doll didn’t see the point of getting excited about something you couldn’t see or touch, about a King and Queen who existed only in pictures in the magazines and newspapers. They were so clean and pretty, so well fed and satisfied that they failed to move Doll. It wasn’t like they were doing anything useful like Queen Victoria of her grandfather’s time who wore a crown and had held that big thing they called a sceptre in her hand like a club and roared at the plantation owners, her eyes bulging: ‘Let my people go’. And they had had to comply with her wishes and free the slaves, and go home to England or wherever with their tails between their legs. Now that was ruler! So Doll’s grandfather had said. The mightiest the world had ever seen, just like King Solomon the Wise.

So she couldn’t understand why all the fuss about with this wishy-washy looking king wearing a suit like everyone else, his queen in her pearls and their two daughters in their shoes and socks and little coats, their hair nicely curled. Not wanting for anything. And look how poor pikni here a bawl for even a drop of milk, eh.

Doll used to say that but nowadays she kept her mouth shut for when she had ventured to air those views to Sarah, Sarah had insulted her and told her she fell into a majority of one. So now Doll didn’t bother to say to anyone I-told-you-so for that would have been wicked when she saw how busy Postmistress and the messenger boy were these days, sending the black banded telegrams left and right. This boy dead. That one missing. Doll had gone to so many memorials and set-ups for the dead she was ready to drop from exhaustion. And it wasn’t satisfying. For how could one hold a wake withouten body, she muttered every time. Then, next thing, Boy had run off too, gone to turn soldier.

Doll just wanted the war to be over to they could get saltfish again, and soap, and rice and flour, kerosene oil for the lamps. She found the war tiring, for so many things had vanished from the shop shelves they were busy day and night producing substitutes. She was tired of boiling down oil nut to make castor oil to burn in the lamps. How she longed for some charcoal, but nobody around knew how to burn coal anymore. Not since Coal, Boy’s grandfather, had ceased to come around.

It was only now that she had to take on all Boy’s chores that she realised how useful he had been, and how she missed his silent presence. Their relationship had see-sawed. Her hitting and cursing him and calling him Dummy when he annoyed was balanced by her indulgences in food, in cutting his hair, in looking after his clothes and smoothing down his collar when he dressed for church. When she told him bedtime stories and sang to him in the good times, he became the son she never had. Now she cursed him again every time she walked to the spring for water and heaved the kerosene pan on to her head, for the drought was so prolonged this year their water tank had run dry. She cursed him as she trekked further and further, machete in hand, to slash at any dry branch for firewood, when she fed the chickens or did other tasks that were his. Mark you, Doll thought as she was sinking into a doze again, there had been less and less to do in the house since the Master died, for now it was just her and young Sarah. Which is how she still thought of her, though Sarah was now a young woman in her twenties.

Yet one good thing Boy’s disappearance did was pump life into Sarah again, lifted her from the sorrow into which she had fallen once the funeral was over and they had cleaned out the house and washed all the linens and ironed the Master’s clothes and put them aside, for everything usable had now become precious.

After the funeral expenses there was no money for anything, not even for paying Doll. But Doll had worked for Sarah’s family for so long it didn’t matter, she had no other home, and she trusted Sarah to put things right when money came in again. Where from, they did not know, but once the war was over and the men returned, they could hire people to work the land again, clean the pastures and get some cows, put it all to good use.

The two often discussed various schemes for money making, sitting around the dining table after supper was cleared away, with the one lamp they could afford to keep lighted. Sarah would read aloud from the newspaper sent over by their rich neighbours, the news stale by then but it made no difference, it gave them something to talk about. As she read about the role women were playing in the war, Sarah often swallowed the thought that she had been left behind. So many girls her age had left home to volunteer their services, were working in offices and taking the place of men who had gone overseas; some had even been recruited for overseas duty themselves. But of course, she couldn’t leave.

Throughout all this, Boy had sat on a stool in the corner, his sharp intelligent eyes darting from one woman to the other as they spoke, taking in everything. Doll’s favourite topic was the burning of coal. They talked about how many old, broken down trees there were on the land that was now Sarah’s, how they could make money off it, if only there was someone to build the coal kiln. But all the old coal burners had died off and the young ones had gone for soldiering. Now charcoal, any fuel at all, was as scarce as hen’s teeth.

Everyone thought Boy too had run off to join the Contingent, for he was big for his age with a mature demeanour, though they calculated that he could be no more than fourteen. But other overgrown boys that age had got away with lying to recruiters. They weren’t sure the army would take a boy who never spoke a word though, as somebody pointed out, in the army soldiers weren’t expected to speak, but do as they were told. And that Boy was good at.

It had been some time after the funeral, when Sarah felt well enough to rehash with friends and neighbours what had happened that day her father drowned, that she realised that Boy had in fact spoken. For he was the only one present when Sarah had walked down to the pond, early in the morning with the fog barely lifting and the dew still on the grass, walked down there when she woke up and discovered that her father was not in his bed or anywhere in the house.

She had followed his footprints on the wet grass and as she neared the pond her heart started to swell in her chest until she could hardly breathe or even move, her feet already feeling as if she were treading water. She remembered nothing after she caught the flash of blue in the pond, down among the floating water lily pads. Not her screams, nor her wading into the water to catch hold of the old terry-cloth robe and of trying to pull her father out, not her shouting out ‘Doll, Doll’, not of someone appearing at her side and helping to tug at the body.

It wasn’t until afterwards she realised it was Boy, and when both of them had got her father on to the bank and the water gushed out of him and she knew that he was already dead, she still said to Boy, ‘Go, get help quick, get Doll’ Boy had simply nodded and taken off, water streaming from him. Doll had arrived first, then their neighbour, then the doctor and her friends the Hallams who lived in the big house on the hill. Boy had merely tugged at Doll who was making up the fire in the kitchen and pointed in the direction of the pond. Running to the neighbours, to the Doctor and to Mr Hallam, Boy had said the same thing: ‘Come quick. Miss Sarah. The Mister’, and had taken off again. By the time the last of them arrived, Boy was back at the scene, silent once more.

When Sarah felt strong enough, and had settled her father’s affairs, she remembered Boy and how he had spoken that day. She thought that she had never thanked him for what he had done . Although she and Doll had already decided what of her father’s things they would save for him, she also wanted to give him a present, a tangible reward. She thought that he would like her father’s leather wallet, into which she placed a five-shilling note.

She called him into her father’s room where she had placed the wallet on the dresser. He came and stood in front of her, and perhaps it was the way the light struck his face, for he suddenly filled her with wonder, as if she had never really looked at him before. Not seen the bold sculpture of his face, held proudly as an ebony carving, the straightness of his stance, his large, liquid eyes. Even his haphazard haircut, administered by Doll, failed to disguise his beauty.

She had meant to thank him and hand him the wallet, but instead found herself saying in surprise, ‘Boy! My goodness, how you’ve grown. You are a big man now. We can’t call you Boy anymore!’

She said that in a quizzical way, and caught how Boy lifted his head, his face all aglow and expectant. She found herself floundering, fishing around in her mind for his rightful name, a name she had heard only once when his grandfather had brought the little boy round for the first time.

She remembered how he had lifted him down from his perch on top of the crocus bags filled with charcoal.

‘And who is this?’ she had playfully asked, bending down to smile at the solemn little boy, only his eyes showing white in the grime and coal dust that covered him and his rags.

Coal had proudly said, ‘Is mi little gran this. Him name – – – – ’. Say how-di-do to the lady’.

Visualising the scene again, try as she might, she could not remember the name that Coal had said, for after that one instance, it turned out that he himself called the child ‘Boy’ and that is what everyone had taken to calling him. And long after, when the grandfather died and a stranger brought the child to them, the man had called him ‘Boy’ too, and the boy never spoke. Not his rightful name or anything else.

Now standing there with the boy still waiting expectantly, her mind a blank, Sarah fought hard to recollect the name, as if it were the most important thing in the world, and focused her mind inwards. Suddenly it popped onto her tongue. ‘Vincent’, she cried in triumph. ‘Vincent!’

The smile that broke on the boy’s face was so radiant that Sarah couldn’t help it, she threw her arms around him for joy, and hugged him tightly, When she released him, she felt her face wet with tears. The boy also had tears in his eyes but he was smiling too as he squared his shoulders and marched from the room. And that was the last anyone saw of him.

At first they thought he would return. He had taken his machete and other tools, salt from the pantry, but had left his good clothes. The old mule was also gone, the mule that had belonged to Coal, the mule on which the stranger had brought the boy. He had left the mule with them, the boy’s only possession, and the mule had grown fat in the pasture. Boy had taken good care of the animal, had ridden it to collect firewood and to the market. Sometimes they had rented it to others, getting paid in kind. Boy spent a lot of time with the mule, from afar it looked as if he talked to it, making sweeping gestures with his arms. Sarah and Doll laughed whenever they caught sight of him, but try as they might, they could never get close enough to hear without his seeing them, and once he saw them, all gestures ceased.

‘A so boy pikni stay’, Doll pronounced after Boy did not return, and she said it angrily, to hide the betrayal she felt. ‘Once they think they turn man, they tek off. Have to go feel their own fire. Nuh seven year?’

Yes, Sarah calculated, Boy had been with them for seven years, arriving when he was six or seven. And in all that time she had never attempted to obtain his birth certificate, or find out if his birth was even registered, had never given him a proper name, as she had intended when he had first come to live with them.

Perhaps if the teacher had agreed to take him into the school, she would have been forced to go through the process, but when this didn’t happen, she had let everything go, caught up with nursing first her mother, then her father, with holding the household together.

She felt ashamed now, and sad, and wondered if Vincent knew what his surname was, and if he would give that to the army. And suppose he died, Over There, what a waste that would be and they would never hear the news for nobody would know who to tell. There would be no black-edged telegram coming to their house, for now she realised that though she had taken Boy from the stranger without question, she hadn’t rightly taken him in. She angrily brushed aside the tears that fell. This was her destiny in life: to lose things, lose every one that mattered. And now with no life beyond their limited circle, she was beginning to feel she was lost too.

For some reason that she couldn’t fathom, Sarah never told Doll of her last encounter with Boy, though she told her that she remembered his name. She stopped referring to him as Boy for she had started to think of him as Vincent, and soon Doll did so too. They reported his disappearance to the District Constable, but like everyone else he treated it with scant attention.

‘Well’, he said, ‘now you can get a good yard boy to come and help you, two ladies living alone like this. You need more than a Dummy in the yard.’

Dummy is what Teacher had implied too, though he hadn’t said the word, when Sarah had asked him to take Boy into his school. He said no because he would be a disruptive influence, the butt of teasing from the other children, as indeed he was every time he ventured beyond the sphere of those who knew him.

Sarah hadn’t pressed the point, she taught Boy at home, giving him the books she had used. It was hard to teach him to read when he wouldn’t pronounce the letters, but he had copied the alphabet on his slate and he seemed to have taken in the rudiments of reading and arithmetic. She often caught him looking at the books, at the magazines and newspapers which came to the house, moving his lips silently, but she was never sure how much he could read. That he could speak there was no doubt. He had spoken as a small child, when his grandmother was alive, indeed ‘chatty-chatty’ was the way his grandfather had described him.

The grandfather was known to all and sundry as Coal, because making and selling charcoal was what he did for a living, a valued occupation in those days when only the rich had wood burning or kerosene stoves, or rarely, electric. Every few months he would turn up with his rickety mule-drawn cart piled high with dirty crocus bags full of coal for sale by the kerosene pan measure. Sometimes when the big landowners felled trees, they would summon Coal and he would make up his kiln on their property, sleeping rough through the tedious weeks of stacking the wood just so and making it slowly burn down to charcoal.

It was after his wife died that he started carrying his grandson around, for he had nobody to leave the child with. His only son Charlie who lived in Kingston had brought the boy when he was one year old and asked his parents to keep him for a while, as its mother had come and dumped the child on him. Just like that, Charlie said, wondering at the cruelty of the woman, before he himself walked off without a backward glance. That was the last time the old people ever saw or heard from him.

It would have been alright if Miss Mae his wife hadn’t dropped dead so suddenly, Coal told Sarah when he turned up again after a long absence, this time with the little boy. Dropped dead as she was hanging out the clothes on the line. Coal had come home that evening to find her lying where she had fallen in the yard, stiff as a board and the little boy sitting beside her, his tiny hand holding his grandmother’s unyielding one, so tightly that it had taken Coal ages to disengage him. O, the women said in sympathy but Coal said proudly, ‘Na, he wasn’t bawling or nutten’. And he rubbed his cracked and coarse hands fondly over the head of the little boy who was stuck firmly to his side, his two little hands encircling his grandfather’s trouser leg. ‘One tough little man yaso. Nutten to eat all day and sitting there alone, not even moving to brush off the ants and flies. Ants bite him everywhere. And him doan cry yet’.

When he first started to come by Sarah’s house, Doll would take charge of the little boy, scrubbing him down and dressing him in the clothes Sarah had taken to making for him, feeding him and coaxing him into talking and playing. But he remained silent and shy with them, and as soon as his Grandfather reappeared would run to him and hold tight on to the old man.

‘Lord, Coal, leave the boy with me, nuh!’ Doll would tease him each time he visited.

And the old man would laugh and say, ‘Next time, Miss Doll’. But they knew he would never part with the boy.

The boy went everywhere with Coal. Although at first he was too small to help much, his grandfather explained everything to him as he worked, and though he no longer spoke, it was amazing how quickly he learnt. By the time he was four or five he was a proper little helper. They lived out in the bush for weeks at a time as they burnt enough coal to make up a load, managing on a little salt and flour dumplings and roots and wild herbs and the birds his grandfather caught in a springe and taught the boy to do. They saw no other humans except the occasional hunter or other coal burners.

Once when he came to burn coal on her father’s property Sarah had ridden into the bush to witness the operation, and was appalled at the amount of work involved, as Coal explained it. First he had to cut and split the wood, then prepare the ground and build the huge pyramid of wood around a centre pole and chimney, then carefully cover the pyramid with leaves and soil to control the burn. Every aspect required the greatest skill, from the selection of the wood to the building of the pile with its carefully placed vent holes, to setting it alight. As it burnt, the kiln had to be carefully watched day and night to see that no air entered the stack. Once the smoke turned from white to blue to signal the end of burning, the stack had to be allowed to cool for several days before it could be opened. Even then, there was always the danger of fire flaring up and they had crocus bags of soft earth ready to throw if that happened. Finally, they would rake out the charcoal, Coal listening carefully to the sound that would tell him his product was of the highest quality, hard and brittle, before placing it into the bags and sewing them up. The heat and dirt were unbearable, but the little boy, like a devil’s imp, was everywhere, proud servitor to his grandfather.

So when the stranger turned up with the boy one day, they didn’t need to be told what had happened. Doll installed him in the little room next to hers, and Boy he became to them all. He grew, he thrived, over time he smiled, he was willing and helpful and attached himself to Sarah‘s father who was healthy still but given to forgetfulness and wandering. The little boy took to following the old man around and when they saw how carefully he steered him from danger and brought him back home, the women felt relieved of that added responsibility. It was clear that Boy understood every word that was said and he willingly followed instructions. But he never spoke. Until the morning Sarah had needed him to speak, and he did. But, she thought wearily after he left, what good was that now?

After some months passed, they decided that Vincent was just another ungrateful child, one they would never see again. From time to time Sarah went into her father‘s room, took out the wallet she had put back into the drawer and stroked it, placing the soft leather against her cheek. Sometimes she felt the hot tears gushing down, and she had to dry the wallet on her skirt, never sure if her tears were for Vincent or her father.

The dry season lasted, Doll still muttered each time she went in search of wood, muttered each time she lighted the wood fire to cook, or boil the clothes, or heat the clothes irons. Muttered that children were worthless and so was the wood – look how fast it burned. Muttered every time she looked at her coal stove in the corner, covered in cobweb, neglected and forlorn. How the good old days were gone, she thought, nobody around to make coal anymore, how this stupid war had changed everything, taken everybody away.

And on one of those hot and miserable days, Sarah was sitting in the cool of the veranda, sewing, when she saw the side gate from the laneway slowly opening and watched with dread and surprise as an apparition staggered through. Hand to mouth, she managed an ‘Oh’ as she witnessed the ghost of Coal returning. Coming through the gate was a mule dragging a makeshift cart, laden down with crocus bags. The mule stood still, just as Coal had trained it to do, as the driver went to close the gate. She looked at the mule and thought it was the same mule that had spent so many years in their pasture, though somewhat thinner, then decided it couldn’t be. This was just some new coal man that was making the rounds, and she knew Doll would be happy if they could buy even one tin.

Her curiosity aroused, she got up and started to walk towards the cart, just as the driver came around to the front. He was ragged and black from head to toe, covered in dirt and coal dust. At first she could see only the whites of his eyes but when he turned and saw her, his face burst into a smile that she would have known anywhere.

‘Vincent!’ she cried, running toward him.

‘Coal, Miss Sarah’, Vincent said. And his voice stopped her in her tracks. It was unfamiliar and coarse, like a grown man’s. ‘I making coal. Sell in market. Dead wood turn into money. Plenty wood to burn.’

By this time Doll had come out and joined them, and for a moment the three of them just stood there, silent, lost in the sense of something miraculous having occurred, but exactly what that was, none of them would ever be sure.


A Jamaican now resident in Canada, Olive Senior is the author of over a dozen books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction; her latest is the poetry book Shell. Her novel Dancing Lessons and a children’s picture book, Birthday Suit, will be published in 2011. Her short story collection Summer Lightning won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and her poetry book Over the Roofs of the World was shortlisted for Canada’s Governor-General’s Award for Literature. Her other books include Arrival of the Snake-Woman, Discerner of Hearts (fiction); Talking of Trees, Gardening in the Tropics (poetry); Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English Speaking Caribbean and The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage.