Strange Fruit / tammi browne bannister

The villagers trickled onto the scene at six-thirty in the morning. No one could see beyond the yellow tape. They squinted over grey backs which barred off the yard to prevent them from entering. The weathered, grey door of the two-by-four was open but it was too dark to see anything inside.

The place had been still when it happened. All people had heard were the wails of sirens and the paralysing screams of the young man’s broken-hearted mother.

Curious eyes doubled and tripled in a matter of seconds. Small groups huddled in various corners. Some formed larger rings, speaking to one another in low tones. They speculated. They complained amongst themselves. They wanted to see. They wanted to know for sure that what they had heard was true, but the grey backs remained tight-lipped.

A mellow voice was heard singing, “Here is fruit for the cocks to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop. Let us clear our minds.” Then there was silence. People looked around for the singer but no one knew where this voice had come from and no one stepped forward to claim it. A dog howled in the distance and everyone went back to speaking in low tones.

“He was a good boy.” A nasal voice sounded over everyone’s shoulders. This voice sounded regretful and sincere and it conveyed the solemnity of the morning. Standing before them all was someone with his arms folded and this someone stood as if he held all the authority to speak. This voice belonged to the village gossip. What would you think if I told you the village gossip was a man? See how quick you were to judge.

“He don’t pass me nowhere. He mother tell he respeck he elderly. I got a ‘good morning’ first thing he see me. I heard his mother talking to he one day on my way to the bread shop. She told him, ‘don’t wait on people to greet you first’. She taught that boy good manners. He was respecktable. Wonder wha mek he do um?” The man’s eyes appeared distant as he played with the hairs on his chin.

He would never say all the things he’d said behind Leslie’s back. The village gossip failed to mention how he’d squeezed himself through the bread and cheese tree to watch Leslie as he bathed himself out in the open. He didn’t mention the wild thoughts that had formed when he saw the boy bend over to reach for the soap that had slipped from his hands. He wouldn’t dare say how he’d grown from excitement at seeing how blessed the boy was, at sixteen. He would never mention unzipping his pants, groping his member until it spat against the paling. The man wouldn’t say how ashamed he’d felt after whizzy whizzying, not when he didn’t feel any shame for running his filthy mouth on the young man.

“I know exactly what you mean.” An old lady’s brittle voice continued the conversation. People looked around. A woman walked up to the village gossip, slow and shaky like. She looked sad with her twisted mouth and puffy eyes and as she spoke, she kept her head down. “He was a bright chile,” she sniffed, looking around for pity. The village gossip was the first to rub the hump on her back.

Leslie had been an intelligent college student. This old woman had approached the young man one afternoon and begged him to tutor her grandson.

Leslie had been slow to commit. Some mornings this woman said hello to him and then there were the other mornings when she turned her back, pretending not to hear his greetings. No matter how much money the old woman offered, Leslie had refused. Eventually, though, she got her way.

The old woman wouldn’t say how keen an eye she kept on the boy while her grandson was under his tutelage. If Leslie laid a hand on the little boy, patting his head for encouragement or squeezing the boy’s leg to show discontent, she hustled into the room to reprimand the young man for being too touchous with her grandson. At the end of the lessons she slapped the little boy and warned him not to smile when he was touched. She wouldn’t dare tell a soul how she put her grandchild in a bath of sage, mint and carbolic water, which, in her own mind, cleansed whatever was catching and killed unwanted, unnatural desires. She looked forward to having great grandchildren from this little boy’s seed.

She wouldn’t dare share her guilt with the people who surrounded her, whose faces shared the pain she felt and who hugged her out of empathy, for the tears she shed. She wouldn’t tell them how glad she was when Leslie never asked for a glass of water for fear she’d have to dash ‘way the glass when he was through. She never told them of the rickety stool she put the young man to sit on. The nails were exposed through the sponge of the seat and she put the boy to sit on it, thinking how he was accustomed to things penetrating his bottom anyhow. She would never mention how friendly, gentle and kind she appeared to him but then when he went home, she badgered her grandson with questions that opened his innocent mind. The old woman wiped her tears and lifted her face to the sky and she said, “Thank you, Jesus, for this young man who helped my one gran-picknee pass, top of the island.”

“Praise God,” the crowd echoed.

“Amen.” The croaky sounding Preacher man ran a finger over his chest, drawing an invisible cross. The eyes around, settled on him, willing him to speak but, he never did. He kept his eyes closed. He bowed his head in silent prayer with his hands stretched out before them.

“Oh, God, is this my fault? Show me a sign. He was a young, half-formed, fledgling creature who came to me for advice. His gaze was filled with curiosity for his own kind or what he thought was his own kind. I’m accountable to your spirit in your house and to your followers. I didn’t know how to proceed without consulting my own heart. The church says homosexuality is wrong. It is a sin especially, when desires are acted upon.”

The pastor continued to pray and as much as he knew his Heavenly Father to be an omniscient being, he continued praying to clear his mind of wrong doing. He would never talk about his own discomforting views towards homosexuality, that he didn’t understand the boy’s mind and why it gravitated towards the X’s, that he thought the boy made himself just as Satan had made himself into the Devil, that he thought homosexuality was a disease that should be rooted out of the people the way it was in Sodom. Instead he prayed to God with this, why-me, kind of tone, as if he were the victim.

Out came the body, stiff and still, lying on a stretcher, covered with a white sheet. The crowd gasped. Hooded heads sauntered through the people. The leader pushed through the grey backs towards the stretcher and despite protests, lifted the sheet. He stared at Leslie. He gazed at the rope burns. He dropped the sheet and spat on the ground for the body reeked high of faeces. The way Leslie’s lips formed an O left an impression on his mind. Perhaps the O was the first thing on everyone’s minds.

“Oh shit, what did we do?”

He turned around, facing everyone and he sucked his teeth at them.

“You,” he pointed at the village gossip. “Ain you tell us how he does tek man? You mek us interfere wid he. You mek us shove the bottle up inna he. You stan’ up dey and watch us and you clap and laugh. Ain you dat say he ah Auntie-man?” the hooded head gnashed his teeth as the crowd gasped and murmured at this. He didn’t wait for the rumblings to die before he continued. “What you doing with cry-water in yuh eye? Unless you does lie through dem crooked, bruk-teeth.” He took slow steps toward the village gossip and the crowd drew closer as well. “I know you wan’ bounce he,” the hooded head said. “We”—he pointed at his crew of hooded heads—“know you is one, too, but, we ‘low you.”

The hooded head walked over to the old lady, watched her up and down, sizing her up. “Man, you see this woman?” A straight line of saliva landed next to her feet and everyone stared the old woman down. As the hooded head spoke, eyes bounced from him to her. “She use Leslie to school she gran-picknee cause she know how Leslie does be in the papers winning scholarships. Watch you.” He walked around her, skinning his face in disgust. “People like you ah de best of de worst. When you inside the house and think the high walls don’t ‘low no body fu see, dem does see. I see how you skin teeth with Leslie. Time he tu’n he back you shiver as if he mek yuh blood crawl. You t’ink Leslie chupit? He know how you’s operate. He kay bout the likkle yout’ more than how you standoffish. You see dat gran-picknee fuh you? He go come scorn you ’cause you train he so. Hope you ready fu tek wha you get.”

The hooded head sneered at the Preacher man who swallowed back his fear. “As for you, me rather bu’n in hell than serve under you. Ain no body pick the life dem get. You know how we come yah? You never hear? Is the confession not the priest dat give absolution.” The crowd threw suspicious eyes at the Preacher man and their rumblings grew louder. At this the hooded head raised his own voice above everyone else’s and he said, “Haul your muddah scunt from round us, you indifferent, wicked son-of-a-bitch,” he waved his hand for the Preacher man to leave, which he did like a trembling dog.

The hooded head gritted his teeth. His eyes filled with water. He wiped his face into his arm. He wouldn’t dare tell anyone about his last encounter with the deceased:

Leslie ran from the churchyard to the block where the hooded heads ganged up. The leader of the hooded heads was the only person around, sitting on a dirty plastic bucket, beating the sides with a stick. As he saw the young man rushing at him, he scampered back off the bucket. When he stood, Leslie wielded a slap to his face. The hooded head chucked Leslie to the ground and kicked him in the stomach. Leslie lay panting on the ground as hooded head stood over him.

“Yuh have a death wish?” he spat on the ground next to Leslie’s face. “I could pummel yuh likkle arse until you are dust but, somet’ing tell me you have a real death wish. Wha de fuck?” he picked up the stick he had been using to beat the bucket he had been sitting on. He raised the stick to lance Leslie in his side but dropped his hands, deciding against it. He walked off from him and went back to sit on his bucket.

“Kill me, nuh man!” Leslie yelled.

“Wha yuh praying fuh you juss might get. Wha yuh wan’ dead fuh? You nuh know a real man nuh weak?” hooded head sucked his teeth.

Leslie sat up, holding his side. “I’m tired of this life. I didn’t ask to be born. I didn’t ask to be the way I am.”

“Man, go from round me, see. Listening to you mek me sick. People ain responsible fu how you behave. You cause dat. In dis life you muss come tough and rough not soffee soffee. Big man nuh cry when t’ings bother them. I ain want to know dat kind-a weakness. Just go!”

Hooded head again waved his stick at the young man. It was then that Leslie scuttled away, bawling.

•••

Tammi Browne-Bannister, born in Antigua and resident in Barbados, is a prose fiction writer. She writes on the issues affecting our Caribbean youth in hopes of provoking useful dialogue. She has attended a Creative Writing course at the Barbados Community College and the Cropper Foundation Caribbean Writers Workshop in Trinidad. Tammi’s stories have been anthologised by NIFCA ArtsETC Winning Words and POTBAKE Productions: Jewels of the Caribbean—West Indian Short Stories. Her stories have also been published by online journals: Moko Magazine, Anansesem and St. Somewhere. Read her noir feature, Stabs in the Dark, online at Akashic Books’ ‘Mondays Are Murder’ series.

3 comments

  1. Reply

    Thank you Vanessa. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please have a look at the other writers in this issue as well.

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