Just before midnight, on the eve of the year 2013, the person who was my brother, but who probably most resembled my sister, and was simultaneously neither, was lifted into the air on a magnificently decorated platform by the hands and shoulders of thickset men, as a symbol of all that was wrong with the country. The men’s faces shone with sweat even though the wind was cold and rifled the purple and silver crepe paper fringes of their costumes, bent their golden head pieces back, tilting them so that they were always on the verge of flying off. Dee’s face showed nothing. Dee’s face was a mask that was unrecognizable, even to me. Dee must have been cold, though, since they had stripped Dee of everything but a fringed skirt and a sparkling gold brassiere. Dee’s wings were outstretched, and perhaps that was what haunted me most: the wings, black and brown feathers fluttering, almost twelve feet wide, and going nowhere, they had made sure, because Dee’s feet and hands were tied and the ropes nailed to iron stakes in the wooden platform.
They say history repeats itself. Of course it does. It repeats itself the way stories get passed down, from mother to daughter, father to son, in the fragments of phrases: “Men? Humph.” Or, “Don’t trust anyone but yourself, you hear?” Or, “Well, what you expect from them set of people?” Them set being the muck-a-muck whites on Eastern Road, or the big time expats in Lyford Cay, or the working class blacks Over the Hill, or those that made it out and moved into wealthy neighbourhoods off Eastern Road, or, the mixed ones, the in betweens, the Mango Skin set and then the working class whites, the Conchy Joes, in Palmdale and Twynam. Then there are them set who keep to themselves, who make financial contributions to whichever political party is in favour at the time, them set who own the restaurants and the groceries and dry goods stores off Wolfe Road and through Market Street: the Greeks and the Chinese. And regardless of which set you belong to, history repeats itself the way these same stories repeat over and over again, inside the cells of our blood, our skin and hair, the tips of our tongues and fingers. Stories get stuck inside us and we are blind to the ways they are playing themselves out in our everyday, ordinary, just so lives. So blind we can’t see the similarities between the story we’re making and the story we learned to recite in Sunday school, at least not until it is too late.
It should come as no surprise then that a community of churchgoing people—all of us fresh from stories of crucifixions and salvation, fresh still from stories we haven’t dared to look at (what is five hundred years in the scheme of things?) not straight in the face anyhow, always peripherally, out of the corners of our eyes, squinting and eavesdropping, stories about slave ships and auction blocks and rebellions, stories that get lost to the bush, so that you can drive past plantation houses and slave quarters made of quarried limestone rock and have no memory of them being there, even though the memory (its presence, its absence) is shaping the way we walk and the way we talk and the way we laugh, for instance, at the most wrong moment in a movie, the moment when someone we’ve been rooting for dies, someone we could have loved gets a knife to his throat, the laughter spurting up out of us a photographic negative of the spurting blood—that we should find this story taking shape between us, in the place where we grew ourselves, tried to grow each other; in limestone streets where our stories have been traipsing and trudging up and down, running and rubbing up against each other since Columbus’ little visit. It should come as no surprise then that we found us another Jesus. Another little lamb—in this case, a bird—to sacrifice on the altar of our deepest longings. Our deep and wide pinings for a child we didn’t know how to love inside our own selves. And, trust me, it is still impossible not to want to kill what you cannot love.
To understand how we came to this low point, with Dee chained to a platform on New Year’s eve, with cowbells clinking, goatskin drums heated and stretched and now beginning to sound their booming bass, their staccato rhythms older than the men playing them, older than the street itself, but not older than what we could only peak at from under hedged eyelids, it is necessary that I begin at the first beginning, and go forwards and backwards and sideways from there. And to tell you this story, it will take more than my words, more than what I know in myself; it will take a village, the town, the whole blessed island.
Listen. You don’t know when a child is inside you what joy or misery that child will bring to your life. You don’t know. You love it, because it’s inside you growing. And because you are young and idealistic and you think this is what I was put here to do. Though, if I am to be truthful, there was always a part of me, unspoken, quiet, that didn’t want to be a vessel for anybody. That part of me that wanted to give birth to ideas more than to a flesh and blood person with ten tiny fingers and ten miniature toes and only me one to be its mother. I can say this now. All these years later. But back then, I swallowed it, jammed it down inside me where no one would see it, and eventually, even I forgot it was there, so that it found other ways to survive, to keep itself from dying.
If you look good, you can see the swallowed down part of me in pictures: one arm around the husband, the smile, like now I have it all, the big belly, round and pointing to the sky so that my sisters all said, “You know you having a boy, uh?” And then the eyes. The swallowed down part is always there in the eyes. Looking like a step child, the step child part of you that you don’t want, that you fling your hand towards and say “Hush; who talking to you?” Behind the part you think you are showing to the world the swallowed down part is hovering, waiting to be seen, pissed off, belligerent, despairing. The soft and hard gaze behind the one pretending to be you. I can see it now, when I sift through these photos. The albums I could have burned a long time ago but didn’t. Because love is stronger than fear, sometimes.
People said he had two privates. How they knew that I don’t know. They said that’s what made him crazy. You couldn’t tell if he was a boy or girl, though everyone in Providence called him by a boy’s name: Dionysos. At least, it sounded like a boy’s name. And, as if that wasn’t enough, having two privates, the lumps on his shoulders turned out to be growing wings inside, like a bird’s. They swelled up, weeping puss for months, then broke open one day, and wet stringy feathers pushed through. Scrawny, brown things. Like a backyard chicken’s. The bigger they grew, the more slouched over he walked, like the burden of having wings was too much to carry, made him crooked, like an old woman in the body of a man child. He wasn’t older than fourteen when the wings started showing. By then the whole island knew about him, about the sissy boy with wings.
She trusted me. I say she because I feel like her spirit was womanish, the same way my spirit mannish in a woman body. I don’t know how it come to be like that, but I accept it’s how God made me. And how God made her. I called her Dionne. She let me. And she called me Sam. That’s the short version of my name. The longer version sound like a girl’s name so I don’t use it anymore. I’m in between a woman and a man. Same as Dionne.
The first time she came by my house Mummy was in the TV room watching her soaps. She wanted to know who was there. I didn’t answer. Mummy was still on bed rest, and I did everything for her. It was nice to have company for a change. I took Dionne into my bedroom, just off the kitchen. She let me wash her with a face cloth and warm water from the tap. She leaned against the dresser, legs closed, wings spread, bringing to my mind something like Jesus on the cross. She let me touch her. She let me touch that part of her. I still recall the smell of her skin, like green things, like wild callaloo in the yard on a hot day.
I couldn’t tell if she liked it or not. She didn’t make a sound though she shivered like she was cold. I was kneeling in front of her, my mouth on her hardness. I could have stayed there till Kingdom come. She held on to my head, stroked my hair, convulsed against me and the dresser so everything was rocking and swaying. When I looked up at last her eyes were tight shut.
“You all right?”
Without opening them, she nodded, yes.
The first time the Council came to our house Dee and I were dancing to Abba in front of the square mirrors on our living room wall. We had on leotards and boas we had wrapped around our necks and our mother’s high heel shoes. Dee was wearing Mummy’s lipstick, the one she thought she’d lost, and which Dee kept stashed in the right hand corner of our closet, inside a wooden jewellery box I said Dee could have. She wasn’t home. We hurried to the bathroom giggling when we heard the doorbell, tearing off the boas and donning our t-shirts and shorts. Dee turned off the record player. Only when I’d already opened the door did I notice that Dee’s lips were still the color of too ripe scarlet plums.
They stood around the living room like a host of crows. When they smiled I shivered. But it wasn’t me they came to see. Or our mother. It was Dee. Rev. Mann, whose face was wide and round, like the rest of him, asked Dee to sit down. He said they had heard things and come to see for themselves.
Then began the catechism.
“You believe in God, young man?”
“You believe Jesus Christ was his only son?”
“You know Jesus was divinity in the form of a man, but not human, like the rest of us?”
Dee nodded and blinked and looked down at our mother’s white shag carpet, the one she never let us walk over with shoes, and on which the priests were standing in their polished black Clarks.
There was silence, and then murmurs like they were arguing amongst themselves, and then someone said, “Tell him to show them to us.”
“Yes, tell him to take off his shirt.”
Rev. Mann said to Dee, “The others want to see for themselves; raise up your shirt, boy.”
You love me? Up and down the Queen’s Highway, at cross roads when our cars were stopped in traffic, on the opposite side of drive thru windows when we collected our brown and white bags of fast food lunch, when we missed and caught his eye, You love me, is what he said. It was discomfiting. Disturbing. Who was he to mine our intimate places for that kind of emotion? His skin shone under the afternoon sun; sometimes it appeared white, sometimes brown. He wore women’s clothes, an arm’s length collection of silver bracelets that jangled our nerves. And the wings, they dragged behind him, dusty and stained by car oil and tar, ragged in places like the feathers of street pigeons, those gimp legged ones that learn to survive off scraps from discarded Kentucky Fried Chicken bones and uneaten ends of hot dogs and too salty French fries. Sometimes it was a question, and other times, it was a statement, or a command. You love me.
By the time I met Dionne she was living on the streets. Her mother had caught her with a boy, and told her to leave her house and never come back. “I have a daughter to raise,” she’d said. Dionne left home and dropped out of school. She drifted. From a couch here and a spare bed there. But mostly, no one wanted to put her up. The bigger her wings grew, the more afraid they were of the bird boy. Even the gays down at Endangered Species. I had been going there Sunday nights. Looking to meet somebody special. I had ordered a scotch and soda. I was smiling at a pretty thing who looked like she wanted to smile back at me. She was petite, silky brown skin, a long black weave falling in waves down her back. Turquoise stilettos. I remember those. I remember thinking what it would be like to take those off, slowly, one at a time, when two homeboys rushed the door and someone yelled, “Out! Out!” like they were shooing a dog. There was a scuffle and cussing and carrying on. What sounded like a woman’s voice saying “Too bad, you could have had some of this if you were nicer!” And then the pandemonium of people working their necks to look, hurrying to press up against the next one to see, ‘cause they heard say it was the bird boy, and “Lord, look at that! The nerve of him trying to come in here.”
I had to put the turquoise stilettos on hold and worked my own self out the door to see where the bird boy gone. I didn’t know what was pulling me. I just had to see for myself. I glimpsed the shadow of wings under the street lamps crossing the parking lot.
“Wait a minute.”
“Why? You want to get your punches in too?”
“No, man. You all right?”
“What the hell you think?”
“Slow down partner. Slow down. Ain’t everybody out to get you.”
“Yeah?” Dionne had turned around at that point. She was wearing a black mini, black boots, fishnets, a green tube top. Green eye shadow in wide streaks above her glittering eyes. “What makes you so different?”
I didn’t have an answer to that one. I wasn’t so sure I was any different. So I said, “Your nose bleeding. Here.” I pulled a handkerchief from my back pocket. It had belonged to my father. I held it out to her. She looked at me, her mouth tight, hands in fists by her side. I shook it again, “Go on.” She snatched it from me and held it to her nose. “You need a ride someplace?” I asked.
Dionne followed me to my truck.
They didn’t expect Dee to act that way and when our mother came home from the office and asked why Dee was locked inside the bathroom, I didn’t know what to say. I had pressed myself against the bathroom door for hours, whispering through it to Dee. I was worried when I couldn’t hear anything, and scared when all I could hear was Dee’s thin, high pitched keening – a sound I imagined came out of rooms in Sandiland’s mental ward, not our mother’s bathroom.
I didn’t know what to say because our mother didn’t know. She didn’t know about the feathers that had started to show and I had promised Dee not to tell her. But now that the priests knew, word would spread across the island like a cold front, and people were going to react just in the same way, with that glee that cold weather brings to hot places, only in this case, exhilarated that they had someone else’s misfortune to talk about and not their own.
The truth is, I didn’t expect it either. We were twins, me and Dee. And Dee had always been the calm one, the one who was smiling at things I couldn’t see, or that’s how it seemed. What are you smiling for? I’d ask, sucking teeth, and Dee would laugh, and without knowing why, I would laugh too, and soon we were on the floor, slapping and heaving so hard we couldn’t catch our breath.
For a full two years he was the crier in the night and we were afraid of him. The town had grown familiar with his nocturnal caw-cawing, a Po’ Joe lost and calling to its mother, but we could not reconcile ourselves to such a sound. It is possible we all thought the same thing in those dark hours of fitful sleep. That it would be better without him. That we could return to dreams that were forgettable, submerged beneath the hum of air conditioners in the late months of summer. We were used to the fretting of babies, newly born, and even the barking of dogs straining against steel fences in our own backyards, but his cries –his human bird song– unsettled us, sank deep into our skins and pulsing internal organs, causing cells to elongate, stretch bitterly wide, like mouths opening to scream.
I left Dee in the bathroom and hovered awkwardly beside our mother as she unbuttoned her vest, loosened the shirt from her slacks, and took her gold hoop earrings out of the holes in her earlobes, resting them on her night stand. I followed her, trying not to breathe too loudly, as she went from room to room, adding another file of papers to the desk in her study, to the kitchen where she put water to boil for tea, to the living room, where she stopped abruptly, frowned and said, “Now which one of you is responsible for that? Hmm?” She was eying the carpet, and the dirty smudges left by the priests’ shoes. “And where on earth is your brother? Still in the bathroom? You tell him I said come here now.”
I shifted from foot to foot, biting the inside of my lower lip. “Dee’s not feeling well,” I said.
“You’re hiding something, Missy, and I want to know what it is.”
I glanced over at the bruised carpet.
Exasperated, she brushed by me to go stand in front of the bathroom door. She knocked. “Dionysos, come outside please. We don’t hide from each other in this family.”
Our mother put her forehead to the door, “Dee, sweetie, what’s wrong?”
I could see she was worried now, so I said, “Dee didn’t dirty the carpet, Mama, it was the priests. The Council was here.”
Hands on her hips, she spun round to face me instead of the door. I had to keep going now that I’d started. “Well, they came –to– pay us a visit. Only, you weren’t here. And besides, they came, because, because, well –” The bathroom door opened a crack and there was Dee’s face, puffy and wet and tired.
“What’s this?” Our mother, who was tall for a woman, for anyone, went down on one knee and pushed the door wider, so she could look up into Dee’s eyes, the way she did with both of us when she wanted to get to the bottom of something. She touched Dee’s cheek, “Baby?”
Dee’s eyes found mine. I clenched my jaw and nodded. Dee pulled the T-shirt off, folded it, and gently laid it in our mother’s hands before turning to face the other way.
In our dreams it was always the night of Junkanoo. All of us were there: the Eastern Road crowd on the roof tops and balconies overlooking John Bull and Solomon’s Mines, with coolers of ice and sodas and Bacardi rum; the Greeks on the balconies overlooking House of Values and Skans; the Chinese on top of The Golden Dragon and Sue Nan Shoppe. The rest of us on Bay Street, where we had been gathering for some three hundred years to watch all hell and heaven break loose. And then we heard the boom-boom, boom-boom of the goatskin drums, and knew it had begun. “They comin’!” We yelled.
The Valley Boys were on the move and there was dancing and hollering on the balconies and the sidewalks, people pushing up against each other to feel the drums and the horns, see the dancers, the bigger than life floats in purple and white and gold, Zeus and Poseidon and his trident in front, and behind them, a streaming entourage of goddesses. And then, just as quickly, the group was gone, the street emptied, and the street lights flickered and died. We stood in the dark trying to see the arms and faces in front of us.
As we squinted and complained, two spot lights swung across the street, as if the street were a stage in a theatre. The lights danced and crossed and came together, and in the light we could see him. He was naked. And his wings were wide as the street. They gleamed and waved softly to and fro as he stepped, sidestepped, stepped. He was dancing, womanish. And we couldn’t take our eyes off him. But when he flapped his wings harder, so that we felt the air in waves against our chests with a force that took our breath away, when he left the asphalt, his bare feet dangling above it, when he was a foot off the ground, suspended, like a monstrous crow, we gasped. People did not fly. And what if he did, and left us grounded? What if he left us to our heavy bodies, our gimp legs, our flailing hands? As if in response to our silent questions, he flapped his wings harder, and laughed; a long giddy, belly laugh that made the rock beneath our feet buckle and sway.
“You see that sissy laughing?”
“You see that bird boy think he could fly?”
We spat into the street. We jumped off balconies. We shimmied down tree trunks and street lamps, gleaming machetes in our hands. We pushed ourselves into the bodies in front, knocked over barricades, dragged him back down to earth and accosted the boy with enormous wings.
When we woke we smelled the high scent of iron, like blood, but could not say from where it had come.
I don’t blame our mother. Although at first I did. Dee was hers, after all. But something happened that day, and changed all of us. Something seized up in the air when Rev. Mann told Dee to take the t-shirt off. Dee wouldn’t. Dee got smaller, round and tight, like a banana finch protecting itself in a rain squall. I could feel the air gathering; our mother’s peach chiffon curtains fluttered in the breeze. And when Dee wouldn’t budge, Rev. Mann’s voice rose, repeated what he’d said before. Dee’s arms hugged Dee. My hands were small fists against my thighs. Rev. Mann said it again, louder, his face flushed, his nose flaring. The other priests started in too. My heart beat loudly in my ears. They were pushing. Dee was breathing in short little puffs. Rev. Mann told the others to step back.
He said, “Come boy, if you believe in God, what do you have to hide?”
And then one of them who’d been standing at the back pushed forward, said “You afraid of a little boy? Just take the shirt off!” He was young and smelled of expensive cologne. He yanked Dee’s arm, wrenched it up, grabbed onto Dee’s shirt and pulled.
Dee bit the young priest’s arm and held on. The priest jerked and yelled. The other priests tried to pull Dee off. Not thinking anymore, I rammed the priests with my head pummelling them with my fists. Dee wouldn’t let go and the priest’s arm was bleeding. When I screamed for them to let go, Dee let go and I got hold of Dee’s hand and pulled Dee towards me. We were both screaming so hard I thought the walls would crack. I motioned for Dee to run. The priests looked afraid of us.
“What I tell you, the Devil is alive!” They backed away towards the front door. I heard the bathroom door slam. I heard the priests call Dee names, like witch boy and demon. I watched the Council back out the front door one and two at a time.
I was trembling when I whispered, “You’re not the devil, Dee, you’re not.”
When I saw those shiny black feathers breaking through my son’s skin, what I thought was, I knew this child was different, Lord, but this? What I am most shamed to say is it wasn’t Dionysos I thought of first, it was me. My heart slowed down inside my chest and for a second I couldn’t catch my breath. Between each heart beat was a space, a gap, and in that gap was nothing I could recognize and nothing I wanted to. What I wanted was the certainty of my heart beating, like the certainty of the word of God, because back then, I was a church going woman. I believed in what I had been taught. Inside those gaps, I felt as though I might slide into a place far from home, far from what I believed was good. I said, “Dionysos, put your shirt back on.” I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to fix this. You’ll see.”
I was an accountant. I believed in numbers, the certainty of them. The definite nature of the bottom line. I believed what was wrong with Dee was fixable. Could be brought back to normal. There were doctors he could see. No one had to know. This was our business. I turned to Ellie and said, “You. I don’t want you saying a word to anybody, you hear me?”
On an island the size of a freckle on God’s backside, it is not possible to keep certain secrets. By 5:30 the following afternoon a crowd had gathered outside our house. They didn’t even bother to go home from work to change; they came straight from their jobs in their office clothes, their uniforms, their greasy overalls, to see the boy with wings. Dee and I watched from the living room window. Cars parked along the edge of our wall, mashing up our mother’s plumbago hedge, and on the opposite side of the street that still bordered on bush. Strangers crossed their arms, took up stations on our driveway, struck up conversation with each other in little groups, keeping one eye on our house. They wanted to glimpse something they could tell their friends about, their children at the dinner table over stewed beef and rice later that night: a boy who could raise up off the ground and fly, across the wide open space of his own mother’s living room. Glimpse the angel, must be an angel, who could make things lose their predictable obedience to gravity; a left shoe flitting through the hallway, plates and glasses hovering in midair over the kitchen sink, kitchen appliances floating out through the front door to keep company with the leaves of the old fig tree in the front yard. Just like the house in Coconut Grove all those years ago, on account of that girl who wouldn’t stop bleeding. (The thing is, Dee couldn’t do any of that. And maybe that is what angered them in the days to come, that the boy with wings couldn’t make anything fly, much less his own self.)
The Council arrived in three limousines. The people parted to let them through, making ‘O’s of their mouths and setting about the manufacturing of stories. The priests, there were six of them, processed up to our front door and rang the bell. Dee and I disappeared into the sanctuary of our bedroom. We could hear our mother’s footsteps in the hall, and the front door open as our mother let them in. Dee and I listened, leaning against the bedroom door, but all we could hear were the low voices of the priests occasionally interrupted by our mother’s brusquer voice, her words few and careful. Outside, the crowd appeared agitated. Hands and voices rose and fell and rose again.
I could see Dee was scared, so I tried to stay calm for Dee’s sake. We sat cross legged on the bed. I began to rummage through my makeup bag.
“What’s going to happen?” Dee asked.
“Not a thing. Everyone is going to go home where they belong and forget all about you when the next big story come along.”
“They think I’m possessed.”
“But Ellie, who else you know have wings growing out their shoulders?”
“So what. You have a good heart.”
“But wings, Ellie.”
“Imagine, one day, you’ll be able to fly. Like a real bird.”
“I don’t want to fly. I want to stay here with you.”
I was careful not to look at Dee’s eyes; I was afraid my own confusion might show through.
“What do you want to stay here for?” I said, screwing up my face.
I knew Dee wasn’t normal, but I wasn’t afraid of Dee and that had to mean something. I focused on making Dee beautiful. I caressed and combed Dee’s hair, sweeping it up, away from Dee’s face, as if I were preparing Dee for a gala event, a night at the theatre, with Dee as the star.
“You’re big time,” I said, dusting Dee’s eyelids with gold. I painted Dee’s lips with our mother’s lipstick, following their defiant rise and fall, as though they were a landscape of their own. When I was done I held Dee’s face between my hands; I wanted badly to remember that moment, the light playing in Dee’s eyes, the darker shadows lingering across Dee’s cheeks and nose; how looking at Dee was like looking at a part of myself I could only vaguely remember, a part of myself I had lost before I knew myself.
“What are you looking at?”
My breath felt warm inside my chest. “You,” I whispered. And leaned forward, to kiss Dee’s cheek. It was in that moment the rock hit the window and cracked it open.
The people outside were chanting, “Bring him out! Bring him out!” and we could hear our mother’s voice rising, the priest’s voices like gloved hands pushing her back down to sitting, back down to a place they could contain.
“Ma!” I screamed again. “They broke the window! Come!”
The bedroom door burst open and our mother was there, chest heaving. She took in the cracked window, our scared faces. Dee’s face painted in reds and golds. She stared at Dee, her face grown rigid, her eyes darkening.
“Get down off the bed. Come here.” We obeyed.
The priests followed her, stood in the hallway behind her. I stood in front of Dee.
“Bring him out! Bring him out!” The people in our yard were shouting.
“Move,” she said, reaching around me and catching Dee’s face in her hand. She fingered Dee’s cheek, the gold dust on Dee’s right eye lid. “This. This what you want to show them?”
Dee didn’t flinch. Dee stared at her unblinking.
“This what you are?”
Dee said nothing. Dee’s chest rose and fell.
“You know what they’ll do to you out there?” Her voice sounded strangled.
“Bring him out! Bring him out!” The people sang.
“You know what they do to people like you?” She rubbed at Dee’s cheek with her right forefinger and thumb, trying to remove the rouge I had brushed on. “Do you?” And then she was using both hands, scraping at the red of his lips and cheeks, wiping at the gold on Dee’s eyes with her palms until her palms had become fists she was beating against Dee’s face and Dee was yelling and it was Rev. Mann who pulled her off Dee, who said, “We’ll let you take care of things now.” Who led the other priests out the front door, told the people outside to leave, go home, and tend to their own families; there was nothing for them to worry about here.
When the dust on the driveway had settled, when cars stopped slowing down as they passed the house, when people at work didn’t begin the whispering as soon as I walked into the office or left it, I took Dionysos to the best doctors I could find. They all said the same thing. We can slow it down, but we can’t stop him from growing wings. They’re a part of his nervous system. Take them away and he would die.
I didn’t know which was worse: my son wanted to be a girl, or that he was growing wings. I took to my bedroom. I drew the blinds and the curtains. I wouldn’t eat. I found out later that Dionysos did the same. Ellie ran the household. I heard her in the kitchen, fumbling with pots, striking matches, lighting the stove, the sound of water hissing on the stove, the scent of split peas boiling, her footsteps and careful knock at my door minutes or hours later. I didn’t have the strength to answer her. My voice was limp inside my chest and I did not know how to reach a hand in and feed it, water it, bring it back to life.
I made hot poultices out of cerasee vine from the backyard. Dee moaned into a pillow as I laid the steaming greens over the purpled swellings underneath each shoulder. But I could do nothing for the pain in Dee’s heart.
“She was scared,” I whispered into the back of Dee’s head. “She didn’t mean to hurt you. She’s sorry, Dee.”
I stroked Dee’s neck, the darker skin above Dee’s left cheek. The smell of cerasee was bitter. It reminded me of our parents’ bedroom when Daddy had been sick. I thought of him now; what would he have done? I could barely remember his face, but I could remember the feeling I’d had curled up in his lap. And my red pyjamas. The weight of his arms on my back. The deep laugh that gurgled up from inside him, that tickled my cheek and set me laughing as well. I wanted to be small against his chest. His chest like a secret world where stories about Demeter and Persephone grew from. I noticed Dee had gone quiet. I placed a hand on Dee’s back, felt the uneven shuddering there as Dee silently sobbed.
It had been three months since the club and the parking lot out west.
“Dionne, you don’t have to leave, you know.”
It was midmorning; she was lying on her left side on my bed, facing the wall. The sun coming up through the venetian blinds made stripes of light and shadow across our naked bodies. Something like the light and dark of our skin side by side. Her wings hanging over the opposite side of the bed were trembling. The council had reorganized and announced the night before, on the eve of Independence, a war on us sissies. Rev. Mann’s face had taken up the entire TV screen, his eyes bulging with the force of what he needed us to hear.
I sat next to her at the foot of the bed. I took up her feet into my lap and covered them with my two hands. They were cold. She turned her head to eye me. I rubbed the bottoms of her feet. I said, “Mummy wouldn’t notice. I mean, if you stay. You could come through the back door. I’ll give you your own key.” As soon as I said it I wanted to cry.
Dionne shifted on the bed, said, “It’s okay. I know you’re putting yourself in danger.”
“It’s not that,” I stammered, letting go of her feet. “Mummy’s old, she don’t like too much coming and going.”
I knew how I sounded. I tried to make it better but the damage was done. What I said, Dionne took it for shame, that I was ashamed of her, and I reckon there is something of truth in it. I was afraid of what my mother would think. What the neighbours would say if they knew I had taken Dionne in. I was afraid of what the Council would do, to me, if they found out.
I turned from Dionne, eyed the wave-like stains on the white bed sheets from rust in the washing machine. I let my hand rest next to Dionne’s. She patted my hand, rested her hand on mine, then when neither one of us had anything else to say, she took her hand back, rested it in her lap. My hand and heart were unsteady, the way it feels when you are looking down from a high up place and not sure if you will lean too far over and fall.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s funny what people do when they are afraid.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“But you want me to hide?”
“You’ll tell your mother.”
Mummy was in her day bed in the front room watching her shows. I said, “I have a guest staying here.”
“Who?” She said. “The one with wings?”
“How you know?” I asked.
“I didn’t get to be this old for nothing. Bring her to me,” she said.
I went down the hall to the back of the house, to my room, said, “Mummy wants to see you.”
We stood there, Dionne taking up most of the living room, and me, arms crossed and feet wide by the living room door. It was the first time I had noticed how many statues of birds my mother had collected, that stood on shelves next to commemoration plates, Japanese tea sets, silver trophies my father had won for sailing. There were crystal ducks and large porcelain eagles, and a tiny blue glass bird that looked like it was about to take off and fly.
“Close the TV,” Mummy said. I crossed over and pressed the power button in. The screen went black. The place was quiet. Quiet like church; how I imagined church might be.
She looked and looked.
“Come,” she said. “Come.”
Dionne stepped towards her.
Dionne kneeled next to the bed, close enough so mummy could reach both hands out and cup either side of Dionne’s face. As Mummy’s sheets fell away, I smelled the faintest trace of rose water.
“You,” she said, “are a joy to behold.” I had never seen my mother’s eyes so bright.
Dionne blinked, looked away, closed her eyes.
“Stay,” Mummy said. “Look at me.”
Dionne opened her eyes, brought her gaze back to Mummy’s.
“I know who you are, hear me?”
Dionne stopped breathing. Mummy pulled her in, Dionne’s face to her chest. “Breathe,” she whispered. Dionne gulped and swallowed like she was taking in air for the first time. And then came the wailing.
“That’s it,” Mummy said. “That’s it.”
Whose eyes was I looking through when I opened Dee’s door and found him sitting on the bed with another boy, reaching up to stroke that boy’s face? Whose eyes was I looking through when I walked over to the bed, grabbed my child by the back of his shirt and threw him to the floor? Whose voice was speaking in my head when I told him he was bringing shame on our family, and if he wanted to act like a whore he would have to do it in the streets, not in my house? These were the questions I asked myself when the curtains fluttered in empty rooms and dust gathered on window sills and coffee tables, when Ellie left for bigger places, and Dionysios had disappeared from the streets, and I did not know if he was alive or dead.
In our dreams we had become killers, so that when we woke, and our wife or husband asked, “What did you dream?” we feigned forgetfulness.
When he disappeared from the streets, we thought our dreams would disappear too. But they didn’t. We took to sleeping with cutlasses underneath our beds.
They came for her on Christmas Eve. I had just left the house to make a last run to the grocery store on the hill. She ran out behind me.
“Bring cocoa, I want to make hot chocolate for your mother.”
“It’s eighty degrees out and you want to make hot chocolate?”
“It’s a tradition,” she said. “My mother used to make it for us.” A shadow crept across her eyes, “Besides, a cold front is coming, I can feel it.” She drew her wings in towards her.
For weeks I had been restless. I walked along the Charles River and squinted at birch and chestnut, imagining they looked like mango and tamarind, imagining the people walking by had faces I recognized, of people who knew me, but when my vision cleared, and they passed without a nod or a glance, I remembered I was not at home. When it began to snow in early November, and I could not keep my feet warm in spite of the woollen socks I had purchased at Wallgreens, I knew I was not at home. And I wondered if Dee felt the same way even though Dee was back there, back on the island.
At night when I slept I could hear Dee and knew she wasn’t dead. I had taken to calling Dee her. Perhaps because in my dreams I felt her spirit calling to me like a sister. I didn’t hear words. I heard sounds. I followed the sounds looking for Dee, down grey alleys where men’s hungry eyes followed me, inside the rooms of abandoned houses where dingy mattresses had been flung into garbage-strewn corners, down, finally, a long hallway, brightly lit, with black and white photographs on either side; but when the sounds were loudest, the electricity would inevitably go off, and so too the sounds abruptly ended, and I was the one left in the dark calling. I bought a return trip ticket and began counting the days.
Repent, said the billboards at street corners and lights up and down the city. Repent. We shaded our eyes from the glare of the word. We pulled our straw hats and tams and fedoras down over our secret failings. We could not look each other in the eye, afraid our secrets would be seen in the shadows of green and hazel, brown and black flecks in our irises.
Every morning a different group staked out the city center, yelling at drivers to save themselves. Handing out leaflets that announced the truth. And the horror that awaited us if we lived without it.
On a morning in December, the leaflets pictured the Bird Boy, and beneath it the words “What is not of God is of the Devil”.
I idled in the driveway, cursing God, cursing the Council, cursing the plumbago bushes that had scraped my truck on the way in. Grunting, I turned the engine off, shoved the door open, and stepped up to the red door. It had been dark for hours. My knuckles were cold and clenched. My mouth was dry. I knocked and waited. When the door opened there were two faces looking out at me.
“The Council have her and they’re planning on parading her down Bay Street tonight. I’m here to ask if you’ll come.”
Ruby motioned to Ellie and both of them grabbed sweaters and followed me out.
We parked and walked the five blocks to the city center, to George Street where the first groups waited, heating drums on top of small fires in tin canisters, and making last minute adjustments to costumes before beginning the first lap. It was almost midnight. Under the glow of a street lamp we saw them, the Council in Junkanoo regalia, Rev. Mann, costumed in the purple robes of a high priest, and a host of eight sturdy robed men heaving Dionne’s platform to their shoulders and into the air.
I could hear the sounds again, like in my dreams. Whales, wolves, women calling each other to prayer.
Whose eyes had I been looking through? Whose voices had jammed themselves in my head till they were the only ones I knew? I felt the gapping between heartbeats again, the space in between where I did not know myself, and held on.
We were there, on Bay Street waiting for the parade to begin. Just like we had been in our dreams. It was New Year’s Eve and it was cold. We had heard the rumours he would be here; government had given the reigns of the parade over to the Council; they would lead, and the Bird Boy would be their star performer. The street lamps poured pools of light onto the asphalt. We wrapped ourselves closer with our sweaters, our new jackets, just unfolded out of decorated boxes the week before. We liked the cold because it put us in mind of places to the north, big places, where people wore jackets like the ones we were sporting. We put aside the thought that no matter how many jackets we owned, our lives would always be small. We turned our eyes back to the empty street, waited to hear the bass of the goat skin drums tell us the first group was coming. And that is when we saw him.
We ran trying to catch up with them, but the Council was already on the street with Dionne out in front. A ripple spread through the people on the sidewalks and up in the balconies and they pointed and they yelled. They leaned into one another, to see what they could see. In minutes the metal barricade that separated the people from the street was almost horizontal with the pressure of the crowd pressing forward, and I could see in the middle of the street the back of Dionne’s head, her body straight and still, and her wings, wide, gleaming, so that under the flush of street lights they looked like they were made of gold.
“Dee,” I screamed, as the Cathedral bells struck midnight, “we’re here!”
As I scrambled towards the front of the barricade, pulling my mother with one hand, the other reaching under and past outstretched arms, past the smell of sweat and deodorant and Cuban cigars, I saw an arm raise up, an arm whose hand was clenched around a green bottle, empty; a green bottle, empty, about to fly out of the hand, and at that precise moment, Dee began to sing. The sounds I had heard in my dreams pierced the air around us, as the bottle, green, empty, flew and seemed to fly forever aimed at Dee’s head; and the barricades went down, flattened by the weight of the people stretched out against them, wanting Dee, wanting to grab fistfuls of feathers, and hair and eyes and fingers, and we were falling into each other, tripping over legs and feet and heads; I held onto my mother, heard her screaming behind me “Dionysos!”; “hold on,” I yelled, my wrist burning, “don’t let go.”
And Dee sang.
I could not tell if the shaking of the ground beneath me was beneath me or inside me, if the shaking was the same as the gapping between heart beats, the gaps wider, the place between where I did not know myself a crevasse, an opening I was falling into or maybe out of; my legs had been crushed beneath other legs, someone’s behind was lodged against my hip, a child’s hand searched for its mother against my face, and the song of whales, or was it tears of whales, or the howling of ocean waves finding its way through Dee’s body, out of Dee’s mouth, felt like a tsunami flooding the crevasse so that I pressed the child’s hand against my cheek, locked its fingers inside mine and wept into the grit of the cement sidewalk.
Once, when we had made love, and Dionne’s face was above mine, and she was looking at me the way she did, that way that made me want to look away, because what could she see in there, behind my eyes, maybe too much, maybe everything, and how could I let her see all that, when I didn’t even know what was in there my own self? I had wanted to say, stop it, stop looking at me, but what I said instead was, those sounds, the ones you make when we’re loving each other, what are they?
I had reached the barricade and had tried to crouch low in between legs to climb under it when the whole thing came crashing down and the people came crashing down with it. My ribs were on fire against the asphalt and whatever breath was inside me came and went in thin, short fits. I could feel the feet and elbows and hands wrestle themselves in and out of the pile above me as I listened for Dionne’s voice.
At first, his eyes were closed. But when he opened them and gazed our way, we did not recognize him: we had watched him scour the streets and beg; we had heard him muttering crazy talk to himself and dragging those sorry wings behind him; we had grown familiar with his pitifulness. But now this was something else. There was light in his eyes, or space; room for a person to move around in. And the wings, his own wings, stretched out wider than we could imagine. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t Godly. Our cheeks burned, our chests fell and lifted and fell; we murmured and cut our eyes at him. And when no one was looking, we clutched the brown bags we had brought with us, some wrapped around machetes, some twisted around empty Guinness and Kalik and Sands beer bottles. We opened our bags, reached in with our right hands, or our left, and gripped the black handle of the machete, the cool neck of the bottle, counting silently to ourselves in time with the Cathedral bell striking midnight.
As the last stroke of the bell tolled, the first bottles flew, and as they flew, the Bird Boy opened his mouth and sang.
I had never heard Dee sing. Not outside my dreams. Not in the flesh. Notes snaked up, low and gritty, from the deepest part of the earth, where the rock was dark and hot and wet, and rose to sky, halleluiah beautiful, stroking and pulling us all up with it. Like a lover’s fingers, stroking and pulling us up from the inside.
On the balconies we saw what the people on the street couldn’t see. We had brought our brown bags too. But as the Cathedral bell rang out, and as the Bird Boy began to sing, what we saw gathering on the street a block away from the parade arrested our hands, our legs as we shimmied down womantongue trees and lamp poles; we stopped, gripping railings and tree trunks, and watched, breathless.
Later, we would ask each other what really happened. Some people swear they saw angels rushing from the opposite end of the street, like how Junkanoo used to be one time ago, with the groups going head to head.
There was the Bird Boy and The Council at one end, the first bottles flying, the Bird Boy singing, and then there they were, flowing over barricades from every which way, in long shining robes, congregating in the middle of the street and marching, marching towards The Council and the singing Bird Boy with their own wings flying out behind them. It was a sight to behold. Wings in every color; blood orange and golden yellow and turquoise blue; they were angels with drums, angels with horns blowing, angels with cow bells, angels with fists straight up in the air, like See us here! Like, This our street and we come to get us!
They marched towards the Council and the Bird Boy, flowed around him, with their drums and horns and bells, bottles falling off them like dead flies.
And the Bird Boy sang.
As Dionysos sang, we coughed and sputtered on top of one another.
The heaving of one belly, one chest, set off heaving and coughing in the next, and instead of rushing towards the Bird Boy with cutlasses in hand, we let go of the black handles, and groped the street and each other, trying to catch our breath.
But it was as if the breath we were trying to catch was catching us. And, after the coughing and heaving came a quiet so deep and so steady we were startled by the moaning that rolled out from between our own two lips, cracking us open on the way out.
And we saw ourselves, robed and winged, circling the Bird Boy
We were the angels circling the Bird Boy
We were the sissies, the poets, the storytellers
In our mind’s eye we were there, circling the bird boy
We were the girlboys and the boygirls
Stroking her feathers, caressing his cheek, kissing her two feet
When we opened our swollen eyes it was the man lying beside us whose split eyebrow and cheek we were stroking, the woman crushed underneath our legs whose feet and scraped ankles we were kissing.
Dionysos had stopped singing. The air was cool and soft and wet, as if it had just rained. It smelled of wood fires and night blooming jasmine. We were groggy. Giddy. We held onto each other and helped move a leg, pull free an arm, release those pinned under the metal barricades.
She had closed her eyes. Her breath was warm against my cheek. When she opened them again, they were dark, swarming with things I had only seen the outsides of; in the brown and black flecks of her irises I could see the insides of hands, of kisses, of tongues, of words. She frowned, shook her head; I reached up and traced her lips with my finger.
When we looked around for the bird boy, he was not there.
We looked up at the sky that was sliding out of indigo into periwinkle blue. There on the horizon, just above the roof of Sue Nan Shoppe was the wavering figure of a very large bird. It flapped and faltered, fell, caught itself in mid roll, flapped again, coasting finally on an updraft of air, then veering off to the left, towards the sea.
We scrambled onto roofs from our balconies. On hands and knees we saw it dip and dive shakily over the tops of souvenir stores, level out again over the town square, and sail past the statue of Columbus, who, strangely forlorn, pointed out over the harbor; we looked too, until that bird was the size of ordinary birds, a brown feathered seagull or, a black and grey osprey far out over the azure waves of the ocean.