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Clarence
Morgan Reid
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Morgan Reid / Created using Midjourney

There was a time when my brother, Prince, was a cripple. It was the time when I was a young girl, and I first knew there was such a thing as snow that could turn your hand blue if you held it for too long. I had heard about it from the tourists who were bold enough to travel beyond paradise.

My mother was from the country, and like all simple country people, she was looking for a way off the island. Any Jamaican who was a country dweller, or spawn of the tricksters that roamed the empty roadsides latched onto any opportunity to leave a place where suffering was so contagious. Mummy was like the rest, who had no such hesitations of leaving. She had a sense of urgency rather than fear of the unknown. After a few years of waiting and applying for a work visa, she found a family that would sponsor her to work in America. With some time and preparation, we would rejoin her, but it wasn’t going to be on that day. The day when she left us.  

*

 We woke up to the dewy mists that beckoned the sun to reveal itself. At dawn, we made our way to the bus station in the heart of Kingston, packed with overcrowded vans ferrying passengers sitting close to one another. The van we boarded drove from Kingston through Clarendon, Manchester, Saint Elizabeth, and then finally stopped in West Moreland. From the marketplace in Sav-la-Mar, we caught a taxi to Little London, a stop before Negril, where the many resorts lined the Seven Mile Beach.

“Mummy, where we going?” Prince asked.

“Ms Edna’s,” Mummy said with a cool indifference.

We would stay with a Ms Edna, a Ms Valerie, a Ms Mavis, or a Ms Shauna when Mummy left us for a long period of time to work in the resorts in Ocho Rios or in the colossal homes of the wealthy in St Andrews. All of the women, though we didn’t know any of them, were always family that we heard about only upon arriving at their front door.

The taxi destined for Lucea drove off and left us in Little London’s town square. I looked around and all I could see was a rocky dirt road to the left where the motorcycle boys lined the street in search of passengers, and a dirt road to the right, where a goat was picking at the ground in search of scraps.

“Taxi! Taxi!” some of the motorcycle boys yelled, almost in unison.

“Where yuh’ tryin’ to go, miss?” a Rastaman asked while walking toward us.

He was as dark as midnight with white dreadlocks hanging till his waist. A toothpick dangled from the corner of his mouth, and his predatory grin forced an uneasiness to grow in the pit of my stomach. He smiled wide, showing off his teeth stained green from ganja.

“Yuh know where Ms Edna lives?” Mummy asked.

“Yeh, mi’ know har house. It’s down by Seaside.”

Everyone knew each other in the country. It was impossible to keep secrets, and no crime, no matter how small, would be erased by time. Even if someone did not know an unfamiliar face beyond a greeting, there was always an awareness of where that person lived or who they lived with. That was the simple, close-knit country life.

I watched the Rastaman saunter toward his black motorcycle with a limp. He turned and waved to us. Prince sat behind the Rastaman, Mummy behind Prince and the only space left for me was between the motorcycle handles and the Rastaman with my legs dangling to the side. The Rastaman leaned over to balance himself. With a strong jerk of the pedal and a roar from the engine, we took off. I crossed my legs tightly to prevent my yellow sundress from blowing over my head.

We were swept into a community embedded in natural red Earth. Only those living in the board homes separated by wired fences frequently travelled this beaten path. The narrow curves of the dented road and the quiet around us felt like we were taking a journey to a forbidden place. The mango trees were the finest green, and the vines above formed a canopy, allowing the sunlight to seep through with penetrating streaks. My brown skin absorbed the light, but then felt the cool of shadows. Nature, the ultimate enchantress, rocked me into a daze that I wished could last forever.

I could tell by the salt water in the air that we were close to reaching the brick homes near the beach at Seaside. After we passed the last board home, where a few faces turned to stare lazily in our direction – after we passed the last market store where the beverages on display were growing warm under the onslaught of the mid-day sun – after we passed the church that peered over everyone as the lone beacon of truth to encourage the country people to remain wholesome and honest – we arrived at Ms Edna’s.

 

*

She stood in the doorway, arms crossed, a red headscarf wrapped around her hair, curly black and gray patches sticking out from the sides. Her house, the biggest I had seen along the way, mimicked her dominating stance. It was a sandy brown colour, waiting to intimidate anyone who happened to cross by. When Mummy opened the gate, Ms Edna’s hands were on her small bony hips, taking in every inch of us.

“My, my, Grace, you put on some weight. Come, come, don’t hide from me!”

 Mummy smiled coyly as she made her way to Ms Edna. She allowed Ms Edna to examine her like a physician intent on finding something wrong. Just a quiet sacrifice she had to make to keep the peace. A flash of disdain appeared on Mummy’s face as she was locked in Ms Edna’s tight embrace but shifted to an encouraging smile when she turned to us.

“C’mon, Kimani! Prince, set your face straight and give Ms Edna a hug.”

I dragged my feet to Ms Edna, my head to the ground and Prince trailing behind me. I held out my arms weakly, but she simply patted my head in return. She looked at Prince. It was a look filled with such intense knowing. Her eyes squinted and head tilted to the side like she was trying to see beyond the recesses of his dark brown eyes.

“Fi’ how long will yuh be gone, Grace?” she said, finally looking at Mummy.

“For as long as the visa lasts. Yuh’ know how dem’ things ah go.”

“Yeh mon.”

I knew I would count down the days until Mummy was coming back to us, if she ever would come back. There were always stories of mothers dropping their children off with a friend or at a relative’s doorstep while they made a comfortable life abroad to never return home, only sending off-brand items and second-hand clothes by the barrel every year.

When Mummy waved down one of the motorcycle boys and left us without a kiss on the cheek or a hug, I already felt a sense of loss. I was alone. “Take care of Prince,” she said. I stood at the gate and looked to the sky as tiny stars emerged that looked like sparkling jewels. I waited for a moment longer and prayed for Mummy long after Ms Edna went inside and long after Prince grew tired of jumping along the red dirt road with the stray dogs whose skinny bodies moped around, aching for a hearty meal. I could have stood by the gate forever, sunburnt and sweating, looking longingly into the distance until everything became a blur.

“Little girl, get inside!” Ms Edna yelled at me when the sky began to turn into a chaotic mix of purple and pink. I walked to the front door with my head down, disguising my muffled sobs as hot tears rolled down my cheeks.

*

On the second night, Ms Edna left us alone with our stomachs rumbling. She cooked a large pot of oxtail with rice and peas for herself, but put a lock on the refrigerator door to make sure we wouldn’t eat any of it. Instead, she left cold and lumpy porridge from the morning on the stove. I pushed the dry and tasteless meal into my mouth to stymie the hunger.

Before the last rays of light swept over the entire island, Ms Edna left. And as we heard her loud chatty voice from a distance, the house became eerily quiet. At first, I thought it was the house itself that made me feel nervous. The shadows extended across the walls and made my skin tingle. All I could hear were grasshoppers in the bushes as we sat in the kitchen. The breeze from Seaside beach made its rounds, so I opened the door to let the cool air in. The stray dogs began barking followed by the sound of a cat meowing; faint at first but then gradually became louder. Suddenly, there was a battle between cat and dog just outside the kitchen door beyond the gated fence, a power struggle to put the other out of its misery.

“Prince, you hear dat?”

“Mi’ hungry bad.”

“Bwoy, stop yuh noise and stop pickin’ yuh nose! Yuh hear dat?”

I stood, and lifted my head in the air, straining my ears. I heard nothing but a haunting purr from the bushes, and then soft steps.

“Yuh sure it nuh yuh braids too tight?”

As I walked toward the doorway, I saw it. A cat in front of the gate, hunched back on its hind legs staring at me. The cat’s fur was black and brown in the strangest way. Its brown fur had black stripes that ran along its body in a diagonal pattern. The cat’s fierce grey eyes shone in the near darkness like a creature from another world that could see the unseen.

I looked outside in both directions, and could not find a single stray dog or lone straggler. The cat stood in front of the barbed wired gate in unwavering defiance. It did not flinch when I leaned closer, but seemed to be stuck to one spot. The cat threatened me with its concentrated gaze and intimidated me with its stillness, showing no inclination of wanting to wander in restless abandon. I took a step back, slowly easing my way deeper into the kitchen, but the cat suddenly sprung to life and walked toward me. With each paw forward in a well-defined line, I instantly felt cold inside and every muscle in my body tensed up. The cat’s slow prowl quickened. As I stepped back again to close the kitchen door, the cat leaned back on its hind legs, his paws extending to the ground. Before it could leap to attack, I quickly shut the front door. BANG! At the noise, I jumped, ran to the table and sank into the chair next to Prince.

“What was dat?” Prince asked, wiping the crust of porridge off the corner of his mouth.

“A mad cat dat. It almost jump pon mi’ just now!”

“Ah, nuh worry yourself.”

*

 

We went to bed hungry. It didn’t help that Ms Edna had us sleep in the spare room at the front of the house where the cold air seeped through the cracks. The walls were bare and bland. There was no furniture besides the large spring bed, which creaked each time I turned between the thin yellow sheets. We wrapped our bodies like we were encased in a tomb, fighting to create heat between ourselves. Prince snored in deep sleep, his hot breath and drool soaking the drab pillow while I looked at the ceiling, unable to kick the grumbling in my stomach.

I laid stiffly until I heard soft footsteps against the bare ground outside the one tiny window in the far corner of the room. I sat up and my eyes darted to the small window, straining to see who or what had decided to visit us in the night.

The moonlight struck through the glass, created a tiny halo on the floor, and nearly grazed our feet as if a spirit was trying to find a way to mark us. I grabbed more of the sheet and moved it closer to my face when the same cat appeared. It sat on the window sill, still and defiant like before. Somehow it found me as it scanned the dark room, but like a lover who quickly loses interest, the cat shifted its attention to Prince. Minute after minute, the cat peered down on Prince in an unwavering trance. I wanted to believe that it was there to keep us company. To comfort our loneliness and shield us from thinking of Mummy who was thousands of miles away by now, but this felt different. The cat wasn’t warm or fuzzy like the skeletal street cats that I was used to. This one made no attempt to weave in between our feet or rub against our legs in loyal submission.

For an hour, the cat refused to do anything else but fix its gaze upon Prince. Then, the cat opened its mouth and meowed. That’s what I thought I heard, but the sound was strange. I crawled under the sheets and my head emerged at the end of the bed. I listened to the faint sound again.

“Clarrrrrrrreeence,” the cat meowed in a long, screeching moan. My mouth parted open in disbelief. The cat was calling out to Prince.

“Clarrrrrrrreeence,” the cat called his name again.

 “Clarrrrrrrreeence,” the cat sang once more.

I leapt out of bed and before I could wave it away, the cat dashed out of sight. I couldn’t move. I didn’t dare move. I heard Prince’s snores, oblivious to the voice summoning him. He slept through it all and I lay beside him once more, fighting to close my eyes and drift into a peaceful sleep with nothing but thoughts of Mummy on my mind.

*

 

The next morning, I awoke to the hungry stray dogs barking. I looked at the window thinking that I would find the cat staring at me.

“Kimani,” Prince said in an exasperated whisper. His body was turned away from me in a foetal position, his head facing the wall and his voice barely above a whisper.

 “What’s da’ matter wit you?” I asked.

“I cyan move.”

“What yuh’ mean you cyan move?”

I went to his side and sat on the edge of the bed, touching his hand. His eyes widened in panic. His face was stuck in one permanent expression. I touched his forehead and it felt like dry paper. I moved closer to him and tore the sheets off.

“Jesus!”

“I cyan move,” he said again in pain.

His feet faced one another, and his legs were bent in the most unnatural position. His arms were limp at his side as if someone had broken them on purpose and then left the pieces behind. I ran as fast as my feet could carry me to bang on Ms Edna’s bedroom door.

“Ms Edna, help! Please, Ms Edna!” I yelled.

It was quiet inside her room. I looked under the door and nothing. I looked through the keyhole. Still nothing.

“What happen to mi’?” Prince asked when I returned to his side.

I helped Prince rise up, holding his torso as he let out a loud moan. He walked like the soles of his feet had never felt the ground before. Leaning on me tightly, one leg knocked into the other, as if he had aged a hundred years and his bones were nothing but a consequence of time.  

“My God, how him turn to cripple overnight?” Ms Edna demanded when she arrived home in the late morning with a basin of water on her head. She spent the days that followed lounging and walking about in her yard clothes. She didn’t show the slightest concern for Prince’s condition. I suspected that she enjoyed it when I caught her grin smugly while watching him struggle to the front gate as she ate a handful of cashews on the front porch.

*

Every night for a week, the cat sat on the window sill and called out to Prince, but Prince slept in a coma like sleep as I lay wide-eyed in the dark. No matter how many times I shook Prince, pinched him, slapped him, or poured cold water on his face, Prince slept through it all and wouldn’t wake until the next morning. Each time the cat cried out to Prince, I did nothing but stuffed my own face in the pillow to block out the long, whining call.

When Prince did find the energy to stand and walk on his own during the day, he cried out in excruciating pain. The loud aching moans would eventually turn into a whimper and with each cry, Ms Edna boxed his ears.

Every morning, we sat drenched in sweat from the tropical heat with nothing but lumpy porridge to fill our gurgling stomachs. Ms Edna left us in the house alone to sell mangoes in Sav-la-Mar. When she returned one afternoon, I couldn’t waste another day wondering.

“Ms Edna please,” I pleaded. “We need fi’ take Prince to ah docta.”

“When your Mummy sends money down for alla we then mi’ tek him to da’ docta,” she said mockingly.

Time lingered and the hunger I felt now showed as a ring of ashy white crust that formed around my mouth. Prince and I walked to the nearby market store across from the church. We didn’t have any money, but we looked for any change we could find on the dirt road. I sat on a large eroded rock under a mango tree outside the market store and cried. I cried for Mummy to return and I cried even louder because I wondered if she thought about us at all. I knew she would scold me for my braids not being neat. I imagined the many curses that would come my way when she saw that I hadn’t washed myself properly since Ms Edna had used most of the fresh water in the basin, only leaving a small amount for us. I didn’t cry out of hopelessness, but because I could do nothing about being so hopeless.

Prince stood and looked on in a trance as I hugged my knees and wept. He could do nothing more than lean on his side. His legs knocked into one another while his hands and wrists hovered disjointedly in front of him. Those walking by called him ‘the cripple boy’ under their breath.

I noticed a man leaning on a rickety stool chewing a piece of gum. I watched him spit out the gum and waited for him to walk away before I picked it up and put it in my mouth. I figured the only other choice to stave off the hunger was drinking the salt water at Seaside beach. I dragged my tired feet back to Ms Edna’s as Prince followed behind me as best as he could. When we turned the bend, I stopped.

“Oiy! What’s wrong with yuh?” Prince asked as he bumped into me.

The stray dogs that barked all night now stood in front of the gate glaring at Prince. Drool fell from their mouths. Their large white teeth protruded viciously with every intention to pounce at any given moment. Before we could gather ourselves to walk in the other direction, they began jogging towards us and then they broke into a sprint.

“Prince, run!” I screamed.

I ran as fast as I could with Prince just a few paces in front of me. As I looked behind, the stray dogs were closing the gap between us. The dust from the dirt road kicked into the air. From behind, the clap, clap, clap of the dogs’ paws was nearing. Their nasty growls were getting closer and closer. Before I could even look behind again, they were next to me. They rushed past me as if I wasn’t even there. Not even a second later, they were at Prince’s heels. The four dogs formed a semicircle around Prince who was galloping with his bent legs, his eyes pleading in terror as he looked at all the dogs surrounding him. At the same time, all four dogs leapt onto Prince. They wrestled him to the ground and threw his body around like a rag doll with their sharp teeth. Their vicious bites were like daggers stabbing into him from all directions. Blood began to trickle down his legs, arms, and back.

In the distance, I saw a few fishermen running towards Prince. They managed to beat the dogs away with sticks and rocks, but it was too late. Prince’s entire body was covered in deep wounds. He was carried away, lifeless in outstretched arms.

“Lift ya’ head up gyal, yuh brother will be okay!” I heard a voice shout as I walked home confused and shaken.

 “When dis mad gyal gwan collect her problem pickney?” Ms Edna spat out when she saw Prince wrapped in bandages in the bed. I collapsed next to him with my head throbbing from the commotion of the day.

*

Days later, Prince was still covered in bandages from his ankles to his shoulders. He smelled of rubbing alcohol and Vaseline with a hint of herb that I did not recognise. If he had trouble walking before, he barely moved now. All there was to do was to sit on the porch and wait for yet another day to crawl past, with no interest in looking forward to much of anything. Prince didn’t even think about taking a step beyond the fence until a soft voice spoke out to him.

“Bwoy, where’s yuh mother?”

Prince stared up and I lifted my head to get a better look at the familiar voice that was on the other side.

 “You don’t remember me?” the voice asked in disbelief.

I cupped my hands over my eyes to get a better look at who was standing beyond the gate. Standing there, in fitted blue jeans and a loose over-sized white T-shirt with gold buttons, was Mummy.

“What’s wrong with you? Yuh don’t see yuh own Mother!” I cried out as I ran up to Mummy.

“Mi’ miss yuh bad Mummy,” I said, smothering my face in her chest as I tried to speak through deep sobs.

Alarmed by Prince’s appearance, Mummy had nothing but questions written all over her face. He was not the same boy that she had left.

“Let’s go inside.”

When we went inside, Ms Edna was more concerned with shouting her praises and well-wishes to Mummy.

“Go on and tell me about yuh trip ah foreign?” she urged through a wide smile, a smile that we had never seen since the day Mummy left us.

*

That night, when the plates were cleared after we ate and the Sun disappeared under the Earth, the cat came again, sitting on the windowsill as it did every night. It called out to Prince in the room while all three of us were sleeping close to one another.

“Clarrrrrrrreeence,” the cat sung in the highest moan I had heard.

I closed my eyes tight, but then when I didn’t hear another faint call, I sat up and found Mummy standing in the middle of the room, facing the cat. She pointed at the cat and crouched over with her hands on her knees.

“Go back to yuh Master, because if it’s him yuh want, you have to come tru mi’ first,” Mummy said.

Her powerful voice echoed in every corner of the room. Her stance was stern and strong. She stomped on the ground in the cat’s direction. Her body swayed from side to side in a rhythmic séance that challenged the cat’s hiss. The cat slowly backed away from the window until neither its brown fur nor piercing grey eyes could be seen.

*

Whispers throughout Little London followed the very next day.

 “Obeah, she Obeah him,” some said of Ms Edna.

“A bad minded woman dat! She grudge anyone who go ah foreign” others said as they shook their heads.

“It’s true,” Mummy said with conviction after she recounted the story to anyone who would listen.

There are moments when I look out a window and expect to see the cat watching me. I always remember the cat during a long night, where clouds appear like whiffs of smoke and a gentle breeze hugs my skin. When Mummy returned, I was reminded that she didn’t forget us. The day we left Jamaica, when the plane took off and distance grew between the small island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and our ascent into the clouds, I saw the many brown figures sitting on the steep rocks near the Montego Bay airport. I wondered how many were left behind waiting for someone, anyone, to come back. 

Morgan Reid was born in New York to Jamaican immigrant parents. She is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University's writing program and currently lives in Maryland. 

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