By Michael Jordan
His mother, a night-gowned shadow by the living room, was peering through a window. Outside, he heard a drawn-out, sobbing scream, followed by the barking of the dogs, Rio and Sheba.
“Go…” his mother whispered, not looking at him. “Go…”
Something was in the yard; something that had followed him home from the Ritz, and his mother wanted him to go outside to see what it was. But he didn’t want to…
Suddenly, Rio’s frenzied barking changed to a yelp. He heard the sound of snapping bones, and he knew that something had broken his dog’s back. He didn’t want to look, but suddenly he was peering down into the yard. Rio was spinning on his side and yelping hoarsely. A loincloth-clad figure with strange feet squatted over the dog and sucked at its entrails.
“Go…” his mother whispered again.
He didn’t want to…
“She prodded him in his back. “Go…” she said again. “Go…” Her fingers felt skeletal. Her voice was strangely nasal, with an edge of laughter, and he knew now that she wasn’t his mother. She pushed him outside and shut the door behind him, and now he was in a yard that was not quite like his parents’. A quarter moon, like a demented clown’s grin, hung low in the sky. Welcome welcome welcome it grinned.
By the front gate, the dog yelped thinly, lolling its eyes at the figure squatting over it. The creature looked up, hurriedly sucked a length of the dog’s intestines into its mouth, like a coil of chowmein, then stood. He saw that it was stumpy, yellow-skinned, vaguely feminine, somehow familiar, and that its feet were turned the wrong way. Besides it was a covered wicker-basket that was large enough to hold the man … (Daddy? Daddy? Daddy?) … that scrabbled around inside.
“The dai dai, Mikey-boy,” his dead great-grandmother said, her voice shrill with terror. “The dai dai!”
The creature stared at him. It turned and pointed to the roadway.
Now he saw her. The white-skinned woman he thought he knew from another dream. Just standing there while she stared at him.
Suddenly she clapped twice. The thing next to him stretched its mouth in that awful, sobbing scream, then bounded over the fence and vanished.
“Michael … Michael …”
The woman in the house was calling him again. He started to go to her, but remembered that she wasn’t his mother. She called again, her voice sharper now, piercing sleep. He awoke to her voice in her bedroom, and the high-pitched, hysterical barking of their dogs outside.
He heard his mother, sleepy, querulous, say: “What wrong with those dogs a’tall?” Then: “Lionel …Lionel …”
“What?” his father muttered sleepily.
“Lionel…see what the dogs barking at.”
He heard his mother’s exasperated sigh, then heard her footsteps heading to the living room.
He scrambled out of bed. His mother’s night-gowned figure by the living room window reminded him of his dream. He saw the beam of a torchlight sweeping the darkness outside. Their nearest neighbour to the right, Mr. Campbell, was leaning over the edge of his veranda and peering into their yard. He waved at Michael’s mother, then went inside.
Outside, the clicking of the front gate, followed by barking.
His mother sighed in annoyance. “Michael, go and let in that stupid dog. It slipped through the fence and can’t get back in.”
He headed down the inner stairs leading to the bottom flat, almost expecting to feel the dream woman he had thought was his mom prodding him in the back. He opened the glass door leading to the patio and stepped outside. Above, a weak half-moon, not the sinister, grinning quarter-moon of his dream. Sheba, the grey mongrel, was alternately barking and whining at Rio, who was on the bridge; growling and pawing frantically at the gate.
Michael clapped to silence them, then opened the gate. Rio bounded inside, bringing with him a carrion-like odour. Michael stifled a curse as the dog’s wet fur brushed his leg. He shut the gate, glancing down as the dog edged close to him, growling again. But now something in the animal’s manner held his gaze.
The dog stood by the gate, teeth bared, crouched low, tail locked between its legs. It appeared to be staring at something in the stretch of bushes over the roadway. Michael felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. He saw nothing, yet. …
He started, now aware of his mother at the window. “N-no,” he replied. He clapped again, and Rio skipped away from the gate. The animal headed for the patio, leaving, in its wake, the carrion stench that Michael had noticed before. It lay in the patio, whining and pawing at its right ear. Michael grimaced, aware again of the dampness on his leg where the dog had brushed against him. He glanced again at the bushes across the road, then hurried inside.
Sheba’s high-pitched barking came to her as she was about to start her washing. Laura Jones dried her hands on her dress and headed for the front gate. The young postman who made the rounds in Tucville was on the bridge; straddling his bike and sweating in the July heat. He handed her two letters, then rode off.
Sheba leaped up at her, and she pushed the dog off, half-wondering where Rio was. She stared at the letters. The long, official-looking one was addressed to her husband. The other… She felt a knot of dread in her stomach as she saw the shaky handwriting. She hurried inside, heading for the dining room. She sat at the dining table and tore the envelope open.
As she had guessed, it was from great-aunt Mildred from Bartica. The usual news: her eyesight was bothering her.… maybe that was because of her pressure, which was up again, but she was okay, thank God… Prices were rising; milk was scarce, she wanted to come to Georgetown, for Christmas, and: I let the boys paint Mother’s tomb last week for her anniversary. By the way, is Mike okay? Please tell him to take care, and tell the others howdy. I hope to see you soon…
She glanced up for a moment as a female announcer on the radio said that it was eight forty-five. She’d brought the radio downstairs so as not to miss the local radio serial, Let the Lion Loose, while she washed.
She made a half-hearted attempt to rise, but stared again at the letter.
Is Mike okay? Please tell him to take care…
She tried to tell herself that the words meant nothing ominous. Michael was Great-aunt Mildred’s favourite. He was still at home, while Wycliffe and Terrance were married and gone. That was why she had asked for him.
But…please tell him to take care?
Michael had been acting strange of late. He had said that he was merely run-down, and he had looked tired, and he had lost some weight, but the changes in him were more than physical. Something was worrying him, she was sure.
Please tell him to take care…
And that other line: I got the boys to paint Mother’s tomb for her anniversary…
Was it a coincidence that she had received this letter, after dreaming of Mother last night—or, more precisely, this morning?
The dream had been so vivid. She was a child again, back in Bartica at the old, weather-worn house. The large vat at the western side. The skinny creole hens scratching about in the yard. Baskets of home-made bread hanging from the roof. Mother’s bush-medicines drying in the sun. Mother in her bedroom, sitting in a tibisiri chair next to her big old mahogany wardrobe.
She felt happy to see Mother, yet she had felt apprehension as she entered the room. It was around midday, but the room seemed strangely shadowed.
“Yuh come, baby Anne,” Mother said, addressing her by the old home-name. “Sit down.”
She sat on the bed. Overhead, white lizards crawled on the high roof, then fell, bursting on the floor.
“Signs,” Mother said, a sigh in her voice. “Signs…”
She was about to say more, but suddenly it was night. Outside, the high-pitched barking of dogs, mingling with a strange, sobbing cry.
Mother stared in the direction of the sounds. “They want him,” she said, or was it, ‘she wants him?’
She’d felt a strange urgency to know, but before she could ask, she’d awoken in her bed to the barking of her dogs…
What had Mother said? What had she meant?
Over the years, she had almost come to believe that her long-dead Grandmother had some sort of psychic gift that gave her foreknowledge of family trouble; that allowed her, even in death, to pass on warnings.
But the signs…premonitions…whatever, were so subtle that their significance would only hit home after the trouble had already passed. And even then, the experience could almost always be explained away.
Despite her unease, she found herself smiling as she remembered how Mother, who never missed a Sunday at the Congregational church, had gotten an undeserved reputation for being some sort of obeah woman.
An obeah woman…the kindest and most gentle human she had ever known…Mother Hazel, as they called her in Bartica, who let porknockers sling their hammocks under her bottom house and fed them after they had sported out their hard-earned gold.
It was truly funny how that obeah nonsense had started: Somebody made off with two of her best laying hens. When Mother found that her fowls were gone, she went to her front step and said, in that calm but carrying voice: “All right, y’all gone with my fowls. All right…”
Two days later, Ricky Shaw, from Fourth Avenue, dropped dead in Chiefie’s Rum shop. A week later, Ricky’s brother, also drunk, fell off a boat and drowned near the stelling.
When the third brother suddenly took in with malaria and died, their mother, Greeta Shaw, came to Mother’s house with ten shillings to pay back for the stolen fowls. She begged Mother to spare her last and youngest son. “He din tief nothing,” she said.
From then, Mother’s hens wandered unmolested.
Mother woke from a nap a week later, to a rapping at her front door. Mavis Green from ‘the line’ was at her front step. Someone had stolen Mavis’ fowl-cock, and she wanted to pay Mother Hazel to ‘put something’ on the culprit.
“But I don’t know nothing ‘bout such matters,” Mother Hazel insisted.
But though Laura laughed at these stories, she too wondered about her grandmother’s strange way of knowing things.
She had wondered after Lionel had confessed about Loretta Hamilton, and she had fled in tears to Mother’s house.
Mother nodded, as if she had known all along. “Go back to your husband, Baby Ann,” she said. “He make a mistake…he’s a decent man.”
Then she had turned away and said: “As for that Mr. Oudkerk… he ain’t got long more, you know. He will punish for that evil tongue of his…”
It wasn’t a week later that they found Oudkerk dead on that trail at Kurupung. Somebody had tied him up like an iguana, clubbed him to death, stolen his pouch with the raw gold … cut out his tongue…
Coincidence, of course. But then, there was that time when she had dozed off in the living room, while ten-month-old Wycliffe slept on the floor. And during sleep—and even now, she still felt a chill at the memory—she had felt two quick taps on her shoulder, just the way Mother would do when she woke you at five for morning devotions. She had awoken to see that the bedding on which Wycliffe had slept was bare. She had rushed to the kitchen, and there he was, just about to put the kerosene bottle to his mouth.
From the radio, Laura Jones heard the female announcer humming along with Nancy Wilson. She tried to focus on the music, because she didn’t want to remember the other time…
Brother Rudy had visited her before heading for the Tumatumari gold-bush. He had told her that maybe this was his lucky break at last. They both knew that he was doing quite well at his boat-building and joinery trade, and that he was just trying to forget the pretty Amerindian girl that he and Mother had quarrelled over.
She did not tell him that she had dreamed of Mother the previous night, and that Mother had been crying and begging him not to go, because the bush was bad luck for the men in the family…
She had followed him to the gate and watched him walk to the bus-stop down the road. And as a yellow Bedford bus pulled up, he had turned to wave at her.
Maybe it was the sun in her eyes, but for a second her brother’s face had seemed like an eyeless skull. She had stared at Brother Rudy with her hand half-raised, wanting to call him back; somehow knowing that she would not see him again.
The telegram telling her about the accident had come two days later.
She suddenly realised that a tear had tricked down her cheek. She brushed at it, thinking about Brother Rudy, thinking about how her grandmother had seemed to get older overnight.
Mother Hazel, who took the place of the mother and father she and her brother had never known; Mother Hazel, with whom she’d had that stupid quarrel over Michael. She had done things afterwards to show she was sorry, except saying that she was, until it was too late. Mother Hazel…Mother Hazel, who she’d known so well, and yet sometimes had felt she didn’t know at all…
And now this dream…
Something bad was happening to her son. And she was sure, too, that it somehow involved a girl. There was the pensive, dreamy look that she had sometimes seen on his face. And that smell on his clothes and sheets. She had found its heavy muskiness disturbing. It made her think of an older woman of brazen experience. For some reason, too, it made her think of Loretta Hamilton, and that brought back all the hurt and anger she had thought was long spent. She was behaving like an old kerosene stove, flaring up at Lionel for no good reason. She still seemed to smell this unknown woman, despite the Baygon she had sprayed liberally. She knew Lionel hated that smell; said it affected his sinuses…good! There she was, flaring up again…
Maybe she was being over-protective, but she hoped Michael hadn’t inherited the Jones’ shirt-chasing streak. He had seemed so different as a child. The only warning sign was the way women had always doted on him. Now he was a handsome young man with a touch of the Jones vanity, who read incessantly, but seemed to hate to study and who, even now, seemed unsure of what career he wanted.
She wished she could have talked to him about this woman—if indeed there was one. But tell him what? She had never felt comfortable discussing sexual matters with her children. The one time she could have done so, was when she had found that magazine under his mattress. The sight of those women had also triggered a memory of the Hamilton girl.
So, what had she done? Torn up the damn magazine and berated her fifteen-year-old son, while he listened with his head bent in humiliation.
But she sensed that whatever trouble lay ahead was more than just a girl ending up in the family way. Maybe there was something in the dream she had missed…
She had to stop this nonsense. She was a teacher, for heaven’s sake!
They want him, she wants him, mother had said—
Stop it! She had to get up and finish this washing! …
And she had said something about signs. …
She rose from the table and hurried up the stairs that led to the bedrooms. She stood by her son’s door for a moment, feeling a sudden twinge of guilt. But then she pushed the door open and entered. She looked around. Bruce Lee scowled down at her from the northern wall. Her own wide-eyed reflection stared back from the wardrobe mirror. She moved towards the bed. Tentatively, she checked the sheet.
She rolled back the mattress.
Relief flooded her. The bed-bugs, which were supposed to be a sign of impending family tragedy, had not returned. She lifted the sheet to her nostrils. Was there a hint of that musky, woman-smell? Then for a moment—a space of time so brief that she could only have imagined it—the room seemed to darken, and she was struck by the feeling of being stared at. But no one was there when she looked around.
She remade the bed and hurried from the room. She returned downstairs to stare at the letter. She told herself that she was seeing omens where there were none, yet she kept remembering the day she had waved goodbye to Brother Rudy.
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