The Weight of the Clearing

By JUSTIN HAYNES

Justin Haynes is a finalist for The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

 

Zaboca Clearing’s zabocas were always ripe and ready, on season or off; we tried not to think about this as we added them to our stews and salads. We suspected a tortured past with the silk cotton tree, some twenty yards beyond the wooden picnic tables, that we know better than to mess with. But the oddest thing of all about Zaboca Clearing, beyond the perma-green grass and the silk cotton tree, or even what might be buried beneath, was the pervading smell of oranges that floated through the Clearing even though there’s no oranges planted anywhere near Zaboca Clearing. It confounded us, raised short hairs on our necks and goosefleshed forearms. Tingled the edges of our ears and moistened tear ducts. It itched our collarbones. All of us except Binary Clem, who could never smell the oranges because of the beating he’d once received for not paying off gambling debts that wrote off his senses of smell and taste and the ability to speak in anything other than ones and zeroes like a corrupted code-breaker, which we suspected was the final straw that chased off his wife Anisa, her no longer able to understand the sweet-nothings whispered into her ears. Binary Clem would watch us cover our noses with the tops of our t-shirts, tank tops and mesh shirts whenever the smell would overwhelm us and would ask, 1-0-0-1-1-0-0-1-1?

“Oranges, Clem,” Peter-Called-Peter Cruickshank, who was just about the only one of us who understood him, would respond. “Oranges.”

Some time had passed since the incident with the journalist. Shaken by Beharry’s death, Indira had moved out of the village and back to her mother’s house in the central part of the island. We were saddened by her leaving. We didn’t follow through on a planned attack on the scrupulous glasses and goateed UWI graduate, but for a while he cut us a wide berth. And we spent more time in the Clearing. Thinking. Peter-Called-Peter owned a special connection with Zaboca Clearing. His family had lived in the village for donkey years, and had been one of the first families that had been bodied in from Africa. Slaves slaves slaves. Village lore from the mouth of Miss Titus asserted that Peter-Called-Peter’s grandfather, Hubert Cruickshank, had cleared the space and planted the twenty zaboca trees on the occasion of the island’s independence in the early sixties. When Hubert passed, however, the family moved to the capital. Peter-Called-Peter was the first Cruickshank to live here on the tip of the south of the island in two generations.

All of us, including Nello and Hospedales and Mark-2 and the glasses and goateed UWI graduate and etc., allowed Peter-Called-Peter his peace as he approached his wrecked boat upon casters that he was lovingly restoring plank by pointless plank. We harvested a few zabocas and opened some coconut water, and cracked some island lager, and whispered Bunny and Richie, Richie and Bunny, Bunny and Richie, since Mark-2, the village scamp and busybody, had witnessed Richie’s arrival at Bunny’s late one night a week earlier with a bottle of wine. He’d delivered the news as we ended that morning’s fishless pre-dawn sein-pull, and a tortured Peter-Called-Peter, who previously had been Bunny’s beau, decided to head out to the Clearing to clear his head. “Can we come?” we asked.

“Onward,” he said.

We zipped out to his tortured yellow Isuzu Trooper, it needing a coat of paint and a transmission overhaul. We waited for the smell of oranges to settle around us in the Clearing. When the smell glided in, so too the spooky sense of familiarity.

Village women won’t visit the Clearing because of the silk cotton tree and the orange scent. Not Miss Titus, not Bunny, not Stacy, not Anisa before she left Binary Clem, not the glasses and goateed UWI graduate’s seamstress mother, not Indira before her exit, and Bunny forbade us to bring Milagros. Bunny, who once stunned a blue shark with a punch to the nose, before dragging it onto the boat and pummelling it to death with her hands when it refused to surrender its ghost, won’t even mention the Clearing. Which also made it a good place for village men when we wanted to separate from the women.

To think gotdammit.

Peter-Called-Peter singing along to the Mighty Penguin’s “You Fraid the Devil” momentarily held our attention. Pitch perfect.

Mark-2 grinning at something that Siddiq had texted him, and blurring of his fingers across his phone’s face, briefly held our attention.

Hospedales, wearing too much cologne to match yet another loud shirt, briefly held our attention.

But then the wind bent in the wrong direction, and then the smell of oranges overwhelmed us, and this stole our attention.

Nello, whose head often inhabited the clouds above us and, now sitting on the edge of one of the picnic tables, swigged from his lager, set it aside. Our local village griot, Nello always wants to float an idea about the orange smell, but we always tell him we didn’t want to hear his theorem, to keep it in your back pocket, Roman Nelson, us preferring Peter-Called-Peter’s infernal transistor always tuned to the Mighty-Penguin-Mighty-Shadow-Bob-Marley-24-7 station than to listen to Nello’s internal radio signal always tuned to some outer-space-Eric-Gairy-Grenadian-frequency about the spooky past and its connection to our present.

 

We were only at Zaboca Clearing for some forty-five minutes when what happened next chased us back to the village, sent us scrambling and long-legged stretching for Peter-Called-Peter’s Trooper. The sun grew so hot that it was even burning the ever cool Clearing air, baking our lungs, and worsening the smell of oranges when Nello rested his long-necked lager beside him on the bench and folded his hands behind his head and asked, “Did anyone see her?”

We jumped.

Peter-Called-Peter, whose saw was snagging into the boards just then, him singing Marley’s “Bad Card” poorly, his voice signaling to the noise, which was surprising after how well he sang “Yuh Fraid the Devil,” halted the saw, and when Nello said what he said Peter-Called-Peter silenced the transistor as well.

“Repeat that, Nello,” Peter-Called-Peter said, laying the saw over one shoulder as he approached.

Shit, we thought, hoping we could bracket away and compartmentalize Nello’s unsettling griot statement without closer inspection, him and his Nello-predicted future fears and premonitions twisting and braiding with our past, Nello as skinny as a Phillips-head and twice as deadly when he turned the screw on his predictions. When Nello talked in this way, in his short bursts, beaming in some far-off Nello signal, him seeing things that we didn’t, something was about to tangle our legs, shake us fully awake, and push us face down in our beach’s hot sand that we’d hoped we’d left behind for this trip to the Clearing.

Peter-Called-Peter again: “What did you see, Nello?”

Our bated breath awaited his chilling verdict.

Some of us thought of sharp-fanged macajuels.

Some of us thought of rabid mongooses.

Some of us thought of the scarlet ibises that we were now convinced were you-know-who’s familiar spirit.

But we all, in our deepest of hearts, suspected what he would say.       

 

“Woman in all white,” Nello said simply, him telling us that the contrast of the pure white clothing of the woman contrasted sharply against her dark black skin, her white-white blouse, her white-white headwrap, her white-white tie skirt. Said that she was sitting at the picnic table just before we arrived and then she disappeared. The woman was surely Kitty’s mother.

“Shit,” said Peter-Called-Peter, putting the saw on the picnic table.

These picnic tables?” Mark-2 said, shooting up from where he sat like he’d settled on a child’s scattering of jacks.

“Yes, Smallie,” confirmed Nello. He sipped from his long-necked lager before he saw the fear in all of us, Nello never quite being able to figure out why the things he saw and said unsettled us like the second before the gallow’s door was hangman tripped.

“Shit,” said Hospedales, that coward, jumping even further away from the picnic table than Mark-2 had, and Peter-Called-Peter said to him, “big man like you?,” this shaming Hospedales and returning him to our orbit, only slightly closer than Mark-2. He tugged at his bright orange linen shirt as if a jack spaniard had sailed in between his buttons and settled on his chest.

It was in this moment of suspended animation that we were frozen in before time caught up to our brains and sent us scrambling for the Trooper. The following events:

The smell of oranges falling away.

The stiff wind trailing off.

The cheeky birds silencing their singing.

And then we were looking at each other, realizing the entire air around us was doing that odd gas station air-shimmy, and then a second stretched to a minute, and a minute elongated to two yesterdays ago.

And then there she was.

Kitty’s mother. Standing right there in front of us in the space between the silk cotton tree and the wrecked refurbishing project that Peter-Called-Peter called a boat, Kitty’s mother dressed in blinding white, just as Nello had described.

10:42AM! One of us called out, us always making note of the time when Kitty’s mother appeared, since something always slipped sideways in the accounting of time when she put in an appearance.

If the dispatched Kitty was spiteful and still developing her powers, Kitty’s mother was in nimbled full control of hers. No sudden moves, we thought. It confounded us that she didn’t just wipe us away after what we’d done.

When we dismissed Kitty, we knew that there would be a soonish reckoning, and maybe this was where we now stood. We had seen Kitty’s mother in different guises in the past: a heavily pregnant cow, a loose-necked goose, and the most terrifying of all, a dark-winged corbeau, but not at all since Kitty was lost. And now the only thing that all of us agreed on later was that although she was dressed in white, she looked slightly different to each of us.

We stood there waiting for her to act, to speak, to destroy. But she was even more still than we were.

What was she waiting for?

We’d seen hints and heard whispers of her since we’d sent Kitty to the bottom of the mangrove. We’d experienced dry fish beds and bad breath, dry crop fields and bad religion, dry scalps and bad mamaguy. A lightning strike that felled six trees at once in the woods beyond the silk cotton tree. But those were whispers we’d heard in our heads just before we drifted off into shuddering sleep. Those whispers that crowded our imaginations when the smell of oranges settled upon us. Not an actual visual peep since we’d slain Kitty for seducing and killing the Titus boys, us thinking it was only a matter of time before Kitty’s mother came for the rest of us. Now here Kitty’s mother returned in a clear and recognizable form, her hair plaited into a diadem, her arms thick and her moving as slowly as erosion.

“Three,” she said. Her voice vibrated and warped and amplified in that tug-of-war way that elongated sound when an ambulance siren stretched, before it showed up in front of you, tight like a rubber band, then sharpened when it popped up beside you curbside, then attained a different shape when it slung past you. (“Doppler effect,” the glasses and goateed UWI graduate later told us when we discussed this episode on Bunny’s front porch. “Shaddup,” Richie told him, who was the only one among our group currently missing.)  

So we weren’t sure exactly what she’d said at first. “I promise you three,” she said again, and that was when we knew for sure that we’d heard what we’d heard, her holding up three fingers to underscore her condemnation, and then she was gone, disappearing in her own unique way to each of us. For Binary Clem there was a bright flash and then the smell of the gentler brand of household disinfectant, him regaining his sense of smell for this brief moment. For Richie the earth cracked open and then the smell of soil recently plowed for sugar cane scoured his nostrils. Peter-Called-Peter told us he saw her levitate into the sky and disappear into the clouds, which made the most sense, us remembering her as a corbeau. In addition to all of this we’d experienced a slight humming in our ears in Kitty’s mother’s presence, a sustained ringing, a localized tinnitus that finally evaporated with her final vanishing, the sound residing in each of our ears, even Binary Clem’s, just long enough to make us think that maybe we were all going a little crazy.

10:25AM! One of us shouted out, and it was only until later we understood that the arrival and disappearance times of Kitty’s mother did not track, her leaving before the time that we’d noted she’d arrived.

 

“What the France does three mean?” Peter-Called-Peter asked right after we regained our horse sense.

We all turned to Nello and cringed at his response: “Three separate bouts of get-out-your-shovel-and-dig-a-moat-trouble.”

What we didn’t realize right then was that we were all moving slowly, and talking slowly, and responding slowly, sounding like we’d each had felling cardiac arrests, little strokes, only realizing this when the music on Peter-Called-Peter’s transistor sounded like the battery was dying, Robert Nesta M. singing “you ah go tired to see me faaaaaaaaaaace,” when Peter-Called-Peter had changed the batteries just two days before.

“Shit,” we said, thinking about Siddiq’s disappearance, thinking that he was now some kind of poltergeist texter whose texts were being sent from some time/space banishment, that we’d all end up with him eventually, that if Kitty’s mother was punishing us one-by-one when we’d barely done anything to anger her previously, then what would be her retribution for disappearing her daughter?

We tried to crack the code.

“What about death?” offered Hospedales. “People always die in threes.”

“1-1-1,” said Binary Clem.      

“Gs + Hs,” Peter-Called-Peter said, fiddling with the battery compartment of his transistor radio. “All of you make up your blasted mind.”

We felt like we now occupied a curious and unsettling world in which staircases ran upside down from the ceiling like in that book of sketches that the goateed and glasses UWI graduate once showed us on Bunny’s porch. We recalled the last time that we saw Kitty’s mother was the last time that we’d all seen eighteen-year-old Siddiq alive and in person and not just in his spooky texts that he now sent to Mark-2’s phone like some bacchanal poltergeist. We looked around at each other doing a silent head count to see if she had spirited one of us away, wondering if this was the last time that we’d all see each other together ever again.

When Peter-Called-Peter’s transistor snapped back to regular speed, without him doing anything, we understood that she’d briefly rinsed our minds, and warped our thinking, a means to keep us rooted to the spot and not where we needed to be. It was then we realized that we still hadn’t recovered our equilibrium, our precise movements, us still moving a tick behind normal, and it was Peter-Called-Peter who realized it, realizing that it was some kind of spell Kitty’s mother had cast to make us bazodie, and he said “shit,” and he was already in front of the rest of us, running off the malaise, long-legging it and fumbling the car keys from his pants pocket, shouting back over his shoulder, “everybody get into the Trooper now now now. Is misdirecting she misdirecting us.”

 

We were in the Trooper racing back to the village, Peter-Called-Peter stripping his gears and mashing the gas.

Faster faster faster!

Hospedales leaned forward from the backseat and asked him, “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong,” Peter-Called-Peter said, glancing up into the rearview, “is that we’re not moving fast enough.”

“1-0-0-1-0-1,” said Binary Clem.

“Yes,” said Peter-Called-Peter.

Toss the cooler!

Toss the backseat lumber meant for the boat’s benches.

Toss Mark-2!

Lighten the load!

We tossed the cooler. We tossed the backseat lumber meant for the boat’s boards. We kept Mark-2.

We lightened the load.  

 

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Justin Haynes migrated to Brooklyn, NY as a teenager. Since then he has lived in various places in the U.S., and he currently resides and works in Central Virginia. He has been awarded residencies and fellowships for his fiction by the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing where he was a Carl Djerassi fellow, Art OMI, the Vermont Studio Center, and Tin House Summer Workshop. His writing has been published in various print and online outlets including Caribbean Quarterly, The Caribbean Writer, SX Salon|Small Axe Project, and Pree.

The Weight of the Clearing

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