by Brenda Flanagan
When my mother was in her late 50s and I was old enough to remember fear, a woman wise beyond our seasons told her that she would die from a snake’s bite. Around this woman’s right wrist was tattooed a ring of tiger wire, and in her face were deep gorges that told of her indenture. As a girl, she had come from India across rough waters to Trinidad to work in the cane fields of Couva.
With startling exactitude, she could recall the number of cane crops she had helped to harvest, the dates of her children’s births, the village and family she had left in Uttur Pradesh, and what she was doing on the night her husband was killed.
She taught my mother how to use thistle to increase the amount of milk in her breasts after my brother was born, and it was she who had mixed up the portion of cocoa butter and aloes that saved my uncle’s toes after a scorpion’s bite.
My mother relayed this prophecy of her death, pleased, I suspected, that it contradicted her own suspicion that she would die of pleurisy, a fate her own mother suffered after being drenched in dew.
My grandmother died young. She had ironed too long over hot coals. Walking home in the small hours of the morning, head uncovered, she had caught a cold, then fever, then pleurisy, and at age 48, she was dead.
Terrified at the thought of my mother’s death. I guarded her closely, giving up my interest in boys with whom I played hide-and-seek; fighting sleep, wishing I could prop open my eyes to watch her as she pressed clothes until two or three in the morning. Sleep would eventually overcome my vigilance, and my mother would place the iron on a pad so she could carry me to my cot.
These were the days before we had electricity, before my cousin Earl had finished his electrician’s apprenticeship that taught him how to tap the current from the lamp pole in the street to give up free lights.
Day after day I would run home after school, shouting for my mother as I rounded the bend by Ms Dorothy’s shop, frantic when I didn’t see her bending over the wash tub in the yard, hanging clothes on the line, shelling peas on the back steps, or doing any of the million and one jobs that kept her on her feet all day.
Our house had no ceiling, and I would lie awake some nights, uneasy, my eyes raking the rafters, searching for a slither, a shadow of the snake I sensed must live in our house, waiting, biding its time to kill my mother, I planned and plotted to cheat it. I would go away. I would send for my mother. I would go to New York where there were no snakes, where there was no bush for them to crawl from.
But how to overcome a major obstacle: my mother’s oath that she would never cross the sea in a plane. “I will see God’s face first,” she would swear whenever I brought up the subject of us leaving for America. It was not travel my mother feared; it was flight, the lift into the sky.
Crossing the sea was one thing, she told me. After all, you could always jump into the water if the boat was sinking—my mother could not swim—“but what you could do when the plane begin to fall, eh? Tell me that.”
She had crossed the sea in a boat to go to Tobago when my uncle Nate and his wife Iris had had a falling out. Nate had hired a band to come from Trinidad to play at a dance in Scarborough. Convinced that the dance would be packed, the band had come on a hope and a prayer that they would get full pay after the fete.
But things began to go wrong: Iris, predicting failure, refused to cook pots of pelau to sell at the dance. She, a born Tobagonian, was fully aware of her people’s general hostility to their bigger sister island. My uncle had not been in Tobago long enough to be accepted, and this bringing in of a band was sure to be resented. Tobagonians, Iris argued, would demonstrate their disdain for Trinidad by staying outside the dancehall, liming, listening to the sound of the music on the fringe. The pots of pelau and souse would spoil; her money would be wasted, and her neighbors would laugh at them for a long time to come.
My uncle was determined to prove her wrong. He plucked the chickens, chopped the pigs’ feet for souse, then sent for my mother to season and cook. She packed us up, my sister and brother, a niece my age, and with bunches of fresh chives and thyme from the Maraval market women on Charlotte Street, bags of yellow onions and red tomatoes because “food too dear in Tobago, oui,” we boarded the Tobago boat.
We made the crossing on Thursday night, but by the time we docked I was singing, ‘Oh, what a night, what a night, what a Saturday night/Oh, what a night, what a night, what a Saturday night’, that joyous Calypso refrain, in praise of an indescribable pleasure.
On the lower deck, the others had insulated themselves from the chill, inside my mother’s coverlet. While they dozed, I had found love with a boy who, as we boarded, had smiled at me from the top deck, his dark eyes willing me to join him.
Huddled together, we watched the full moon tracking us across the silvery water while his fingers played musical cords on my nipples. Flying fish dance in the Bocas during full moon, people say. If they did, I would not have noticed nor cared, for my whole body was delighting in a symphony of its own as the boy’s fingers rubbed my small breasts into an exquisite spasm that today, years later, I still recall with gratitude.
Iris was right. Only a few people came to the dance, but the imported musicians declared my mother’s food the best they had ever eaten, and so decided not to kill my uncle the following morning when he could not pay them.
One day we found a snake in the roof. The rainy season had just started, and water was coming in through the galvanize over my mother’s bed. We had to endure several days of pot and pans placed strategically on the box spring—the coconut fiber mattress having been safely removed to a corner—before my uncle Nate could come from Tobago to climb on top of the house with a bucket of tar to seal the holes in the roof that snakes could crawl through, and bite my mother while she was sleeping.
I held the ladder as he climbed up, and just as he shifted a sheet of galvanize to get to the bottom layer with the holes, he saw the snake.
Startled by the noise, it raised its head in preparation to ward off danger. Resting the tin of tar on the roof, Uncle Nate called to me to hand him a broomstick. I dashed into the house, searched frantically, but could not find the broom, so I pulled the rod that was propping up the clothes line in our backyard.
My mother, hoping to catch the brief respite of morning sun, had just hung three lily-white sheets on the line. They dropped to the muddy ground as I ran with the pole back to my ladder.
Uncle Nate had backed down to the lowest rung. He took the pole and poked the snake. It fell. My uncle rushed inside the house and I, right behind him, saw the snake’s orange and black body struggling to wind itself through the wire coils of my mother’s box spring.
Did I scream? I must have, because my mother’s hand, smelling of blue soap, was over my mouth, and her voice was quietly insisting that I shush.
“Don’t frighten the poor thing,” she was saying. “It’s not going to hurt you.”
She pushed me gently into my Uncle Nate’s arms, lifted the box spring, and with the snake coiling and uncoiling, hissing and flicking its forked tongue, she dragged the box spring through the back door, down the back steps, and into the yard. All the while, Uncle Nate was shouting at her, calling her mad, demanding that she leave the snake to him. He reached for a shovel to bash in its head. I wanted him to kill it. Kill it dead.
My mother ignored us. With gentle prods from the pole, she helped the snake get out of the coils and unto the ground.
“Hold the dog,” she commanded me, as it tried to rush at the snake. Slowly, with the dog barking, my uncle protesting, and I shivering in fear, my mother nudged the snake until it slithered on its own into the bamboo touf at the back of the house.
Despite the old Indian woman’s assurances that bamboo is good luck, I stayed afraid that the snake would multiply and would, one day, get my mother.
In time, though, I developed a compelling interest in boys that diverted my attention from my mother’s safety.
Years passed. My sister Velma and I went to America. To celebrate Velma’s graduation from medical school, I invited my mother to join us in New York. On the long list of reasons that I had prepared in defense of the safety of flying was that America had landed a man on the moon. My mother wrote back that she would never believe that a human being had set foot on the moon, but she was proud of her girl-child, she would get on a plane.
On the day she was to arrive, the plane emptied and she did not appear. Back in our Brooklyn apartment, a message awaited us from my cousin Marjorie. It said my mother had refused to go to the airport that day because her horoscope had told her it was not a good time to travel. She would come the following Monday.
She came, and lived for 28 years in New York, and although there was much to be fearful of in that city, we never saw a snake.
Just after her 95th birthday, my mother asked us to return her to Trinidad. She had begun to complain about the cold in New York, but Velma and I suspected she had a different reason. Years before, she had bought her plot in the Anglican cemetery, and had made us promise to lay her body there to rest.
She died peacefully two years later, and my Uncle Nate came from Tobago to help dig her grave. I walked behind her coffin to the corner spot she had chosen, and the nearer I came, the more I could see of the tall touf of bamboo growing just beyond the point where we would rest her head.
Copyright (c) 2011 Brenda Flanagan
Also in this issue, an interview with Brenda Flanagan:
A Painful Joy: Brenda Flanagan Talks Craft
Writer Brenda Flanagan, in 2005, became the first American writer to be sent to read her work in Libya in 25 years. Sponsored by the US Department of State, Flanagan was chosen to be the first cultural ambassador from the US to perform in Tripoli and Benghazi because of her success as a writer/performer in countries known to have uneasy relationships with America. Her abilities to work with writers, academics, students, and the general population in countries as diverse as Brazil, Chad, Chile, the Czech Republic, India, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Tunisia, has made her and her work popular world-wide, and has brought most favorable attention to American and Caribbean literatures.
A widely published writer of short stories, several published in her collection, In Praise of Island Women and Other Crimes, poems, plays, essays, and the popular, prize-winning novel, You Alone Are Dancing (The University of Michigan Press),. Flanagan’s newest novel,Allah In the Islands about an Islamic uprising in the Caribbean, is now available from Peepal Tree Press. Her stories have been translated into Spanish, Arabic, and Russian.
A September 2009 winner of the prestigious North Carolina Arts Council award for literary non-fiction, Flanagan is at work on a book about the year she worked with the famous American singer, Nina Simone.