To Da-duh, In Memoriam

Da-duh nodded and passed on. The orchard ended and we were on the narrow cart road that led through the canepiece, the canes clashing like swords above my cowering head. Again, she turned and her thin muscular arms spread wide, dim gaze embracing the small field of canes, she said, and her voice almost broke under the weight of her pride, “Tell me, have you got anything like these in that place where you were born?”

“No.”

‘I din’ think so. I bet you don’t even know that these canes here and the sugar you eat is one and the same thing. That they does throw the canes into some damn machine at the factory and squeeze out all the little life in them to make sugar for you all so in New York to eat. I bet you don’t know that.”

“I’ve got two cavities and I’m not allowed to eat a lot of sugar.”

But Da-duh didn’t hear me. She had already turned with an inexplicably angry motion and was making her way rapidly out of the canes, and down the slope at the edge of the field which led to the gully below.

Following her apprehensively down the incline amid a stand of banana plants whose leaves flapped like elephants ears in the wind, I found myself in the middle of a small tropical wood – a place dense, gloomy and tremulous with the fitful play of light and shadow as the leaves moved against the sun high above. It was a violent place, the tangled foliage fighting each other for a chance at the sunlight, the branches of the trees locked in what seemed an immemorial struggle, one that was both necessary and inevitable. But despite the violence, it was pleasant, almost peaceful in the gully, and beneath the thick undergrowth, the earth smelled like spring.

This time Da-duh didn’t even bother to ask her usual question, but simply turned and waited for me to speak.

“No,” I said, my head bowed. ”We don’t have anything like this in New York.”

“Ah,” she cried, her triumph complete. “I din think so. Why, I’ve heard that’s a place where you can walk till you near drop and never see a tree.”

“We’ve got a chestnut tree in front of our house,” I said.

“Does it bear?” She waited. “Does it bear, I ask yuh,”

“Not anymore,” I muttered. “It used to, but not anymore.”

She gave the nod that was like a nervous twitch. “You see,” she said. “Nothing can bear there.” Then, secure behind her scorn, she added, “But tell me, what’s this snow like that you hear so much about?”

Looking up, I studied her closely for a time, sensing my chance, and then I told her, describing at length and with as much drama as I could summon, not only what snow in the city was like, but what it would be like here, in her perennial summer kingdom.

“And you see all these trees you got here,” I said. “Well, they’d be bare. No leaves, no fruit, nothing. They’d be covered in snow. You see your canes? They’d be buried under tons of snow. The snow would be higher than your head, higher than your house, and you wouldn’t be able to come down into this here gully because it would be snowed under…”

She searched my face for the lie, still scornful but intrigued. “What a thing nuh?” she said finally~ whispering it softly to herself.

“And when it snows you couldn’t dress like you are now,” I said. “Oh no, you’d freeze to death. You’d have to wear a hat and gloves and galoshes and ear muffs so your ears wouldn’t freeze and drop off, and a heavy coat. I’ve got a Shirley Temple coat with fur on the collar. I can dance. You wanna see?”

Before she could answer I began, with a dance called the Truck which was popular back then in the 1930s. My right forefinger waving, I trucked around the nearby trees and around Da-duh’s awed and rigid form. After the Truck, I did the Suzy-Q, my lean hips swishing, my sneakers sidling zigzag over the ground. “I can sing,” I said and did so, starting with “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, then without pausing, “Tea For Two”, and ending with “I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cents Store”.

For long moments afterwards, Da-duh stared at me as if I were a creature from Mars, an emissary from some world she did not know, but which intrigued her and whose power she both felt and feared. Yet, something about my performance must have pleased her, because bending down she slowly lifted her long skirt and then, one by one, the layers of petticoats until she came to a drawstring purse dangling at the end of a long strip of cloth tied round her waist. Opening the purse she handed me a penny. “Here,” she said, half-smiling against her will, “keep this to buy yourself a sweet at the shop up the road. There’s nothing to be done with you, soul.”

From then on, whenever I wasn’t being taken to visit relatives, I accompanied Da-duh out into the ground, and alone with her in the gully, I told her about New York. It always began with some slighting remark on her part: “I know they don’t have anything this nice where you come from,” or “Tell me, I hear those foolish people in New York does do such and such … ” But as I answered, recreating my towering world of steel and concrete and machines for her, building the city out of words, I would feel her give way. I came to know the signs of her surrender: the total stillness that would come over her little hard dry form, the probing gaze that like a scalpel sought to cut through my skull to get at the images there, and to see if I were lying; above all, her fear, a fear nameless and profound, the same one I had felt beating in the palm of her hand that day in the lorry.

Over the weeks I told her about refrigerators, radios, gas stoves, elevators, trolley cars, wringer washing machines, movies, airplanes, the cyclone at Coney Island, subways, toasters, electric lights: “At night, see, all you have to do is flip this switch on the wall and all the lights in the house come on. Just like that. Like magic. It’s like turning on the sun at night.”

“But tell me,” she said to me once with a little mocking playful smile, “do the white people have all these things too or it’s only the Bajans that’ve gone up there to live?”

I laughed. “What d’ya mean,” I said, “the white people have even better.” Then: ”I beat up a white girl in my class last term.”

“Beating up white people!” Her tone was incredulous.

“How you mean!” I said, using an expression of hers. “She called me a name.”

But for some reason Da-duh could not quite get over this and repeated in the same hushed, shocked voice, “Beating up white people now! Oh, the lord, the world’s changing up so I don’t even recognize it anymore.”

One morning toward the end of our stay, Da-duh led me into a part of the gully that we had never visited before, an area darker and more thickly overgrown than the rest, almost impenetrable. There in a small clearing amid the dense bush, she stopped before an incredibly tall royal palm which rose cleanly out of the ground, and drawing the eye up with it, soared straight as an arrow high above the trees around it into the sky. It appeared to be touching the blue dome of sky, to be flaunting its dark crown of fronds right in the blinding white face of the late morning sun.

Da-duh watched me a long time before she spoke, and then she said very quietly, “All right now, tell me if you’ve got anything this tall in that place you’re from.”

I almost wished, seeing her face, that I could have said no. “Yes,” I said. We’ve got buildings hundreds of times this tall in New York. There’s one called the Empire State building, that’s the tallest in the world. My class visited it last year and I went all the way to the top. It’s got over a hundred floors. I can’t describe how tall it is. Wait a minute. What’s the name of that hill I went to visit the other day, where they have a police station?”

“You mean Bissex?”

“Yes, Bissex. Well, the Empire State building is taller than that.”

“You’re lying now!” she shouted, trembling with rage. Her hand lifted to strike me.

“No, I’m not,” I said.

“It really is. I’ll send you a picture of it soon as I get back so you can see for yourself. But it’s way taller than Bissex.”

All the fight went out of her at that. The hand poised to strike me fell limp to her side, and as she stared at me, seeing not me, but the building that was taller than the highest hill she knew, the small stubborn
light in her eyes (it was the same amber as the flame in the kerosene lamp she lit at dusk) began to fail. Finally, with a vague gesture that even in the midst of her defeat still tried to dismiss me and my world, she turned and started back through the gully, walking slowly, her steps groping and uncertain, as if she was suddenly no longer sure of the way, while I followed triumphant, yet strangely saddened behind.

The next morning I found her dressed for our morning walk, but stretched out on the Berbice chair in the tiny drawing room where she sometimes napped during the afternoon heat, her face turned to the window beside her. She appeared thinner and suddenly indescribably old.

“My Da-duh,” I said.

“Yes, nuh,” she said. Her voice was listless and the face she slowly turned my way was, now that I think back on it, like a Benin mask, the features drawn and almost distorted by an ancient abstract sorrow.

“Don’t you feel well?” I asked. “Girl, I don’t know.”

“Mv Da-duh, I goin’ boil you some bush tea,” my aunt, Da-duh’s youngest child, who lived with her called from the shed roof kitchen.

“Who tell you I asked for bush tea!” she cried, her voice assuming for a moment its old authority. “You can’t even rest nowadays without some malicious person looking for you to dead. “Come girl,” she motioned me to a place beside her on the old-fashioned lounge chair, “give us a tune.”

I sang for her until breakfast at eleven, all my brash irrevent Tin Pan Alley songs, and then just before noon, we went out into the ground. But it was a short, dispirited walk. Da-duh didn’t even notice that the mangoes were beginning to ripen and would have to be picked before the village boys got to them. And when she paused occasionally, and looked out across the case, or up at her trees, it wasn’t as if she were seeing them, but something else. Some huge, monolithic structure had imposed itself, it seemed, between her and the land, obstructing her vision. Returning to the house, she slept the entire afternoon on the Berbice chair.

She remained like this until we left, languishing away the mornings on the chair at the window, gazing out at the land as if it were already doomed; then, at noon, taking the brief stroll with me through the ground during which she seldom spoke, and after returning to the house, sleeping till almost dusk sometimes.
On the day of our departure, she put on the austere, ankle length white dress, the black shoes and brown felt hat (her town clothes she called them), but she did not go with us to town. She saw us off on the road outside her house and in the midst of my mother’s tearful protracted farewell, she leaned down and whispered in my ear. “Girl, you’s not to forget now to send me the picture, you hear.”

By the time I mailed her the large coloured picture postcard of the Empire State building, she was dead. She died during the famous ’37 strike which began shortly after we left. On the day of her death, England sent planes flying low over the island in a show of force – so low, according to my aunt’s letter, that the downdraft from them shook the ripened mangoes from the trees in Da-duh’s orchard. Frightened, everyone in the village fled into the canes, except Da-duh. She remained in the house at the window so my aunt said, watching as the planes came swooping and screaming like monstrous birds down over the village, over her house, rattling her trees and flattening the young canes in her field. It must have seemed to her lying there, that they did not intend pulling out of their dive, but like the hardback beetles which hurled themselves with suicidal force against the walls of the house at night, those menacing silver shapes would hurl themselves in an ecstasy of self-immolation on to the land, destroying it utterly.

When the planes finally left and the villagers returned, they found her dead on the Berbice chair at the window.

She died and I lived, but always, to this day even, within the shadow of her death. For a brief period after I was grown, I went to live alone, like one doing penance, in a loft above a noisy factory in downtown New York. There painted seas of sugarcane and huge swirling Van Gogh suns and palm trees striding like brightly plumed Watussi across a tropical landscape, while he thunderous thread of the machines downstairs jarred the floor beneath my easel, mocking my efforts.