(There’s a descriptive passage giving some of Vida’s background that I’m not publishing as part of this blog. At least not yet. Maybe we’ll get come back to it. Here’s the story of how Vida wound up at Mrs. Williams’ house with her two children with her twin sister up at the top of the mountain in a mental institution, an institution with … well, read on...)
Vida pulls the sheet up over her two children, patting Mary’s head as Mary falls back to sleep and as Vida herself rises, crosses the room to the sink to splash water on her face and body, gently towelling herself dry. Vida’s body and its shadow are like two bodies dancing together in this light, a grey light through the window as the sun tries to rise through the mist. She is neither tall nor short, neither thin nor fat. Her skin is dark, nearly blue black in this light, and her dressing gown is light. Her hair is pulled back in a tight band. She sighs as she sprinkles water on her hair to pat it down.
It is still dark. The rooster’s crowing sets off the cacophony that grows as it spreads through town, the sound of their crowing bounding off the larger buildings into the centre of town, the sound of the crowing echoing up into the hills. Then the dogs start barking and the roosters, hens and dogs together shatter the morning stillness. Mrs. Williams’s dogs are also barking. The old woman keeps several dogs, always tan dogs small enough to step over but loud enough to protect her. There is only one dog who doesn’t bark and doesn’t bother anyone except that British man who has been staying over at the guest house, the man who is always threatening to chop the troublesome mutt with a machete if it bites him again. It bites only him, then runs back home so that this particular man knows where to come looking. He has given Mrs. Williams an awful time about the dog, but now all is forgotten in the nightmare of the past four days. No one notices that the man has gone and that the dog remains, so that the dog isn’t barking now. Momentarily all the dogs stop barking so the quiet closes in again down the road this early morning, as if nothing has happened.
Vida dresses quickly, passes through the living room and takes an umbrella from the stand as she slips the latch open on the front door and passes through as quietly as a shadow. The road is glassy from the rain and Vida sniffs at the air to take in the clean wet smells as soon as she reaches the road beyond the gate. Mrs. Williams’ house smells like her cooking, not like Vida’s mom’s house where the kitchen was out back, the old cook stove and hot pots never offending the lemon smell of the small house where the whole family crowded to sleep and talk and from which Vera seldom ventured, small as the space was, scared as she was as a little girl, scared of everything but especially the large turkey in the yard and the heat of the day and the dark of the night. Besides, the air circulating in the country kitchen there was sweet. Not like Mrs. Williams’ bigger house with its inside kitchen and smells of fried fish and cakes and curry indoors that Vida got used to only slowly.
She passes by the gas station at the end of the road into town, then past the first stretch of houses where the smoother pavement absorbs the sound of her footfall which, now that the roosters have settled down, is the only sound disturbing the stillness of this early morning, a silence that closes back in behind her. Her walk belies her agitation. Her steps are steady and unhurried, like a dancer’s across a stage. The smooth musculature that developed in her face, in fact, extends through her whole body, muscles stretched and smoothed from the constant exercise of rising again and again to meet whatever occasion arises. No one would guess what she is doing up and about.
In the clearing along the road Vida turns and looks up the mountain. She can see only the prison looming up over the trees at the top of the mountain, but what she does not see she knows is also there. The forest, wet as jungle where the men, maybe Arthur, is hiding. The first day there were lights up there, flickering lights, maybe flashlights, maybe army issue. Maybe some men were okay up there, but there hasn’t been any lights in two days. Beyond the forest, adjacent to the prison, stands the mental hospital where Vera stays. By way of explanation for why these two buildings stand next to each other, out of anyone’s way, high on the mountain overlooking everything, a local historian has it that the asylum was to be a second prison, and that at the time the functions were confused. Madness and criminality, there is always difficulty distinguishing the conditions, a difficulty that seems to have been compounded back then, according to the local authorities, by the fact that there were too many women slaves on St. Michaels. Womanliness was seeping over the island, so much was its power, and the authorities’ answer was to build this large asylum with its long corridors where Vera is waiting patiently, Vera being a patient there now, waiting for her drugs. If she refuses her drugs she will go mad because she is mad, or so they say, but she does not say because she never has spoken a word. She too is waiting in line. Staring, and waiting.
Vera’s eyes are Vida’s eyes. The twins have the same eyes but it is not just their eyes; everything about them is entangled. Years ago Arthur had given Vida a book by a South African poet who explained all this. The Zulu call twins amakhosi or amawele, those who help each other across the river. The two women did carry each other ever so long. The sisters as infants looked very much the same, separating only slowly no matter what they say about how this happens at conception. Vida and Vera didn’t conceive it this way, close as they were and talking the same language even though Vida learned adult talk and Vera learned no speech but what they had between the two of them for ever so long, hardly even now speaks. Still, there is no identity without difference; Vida’s face is plain and Vera is crazy. Vida and their mother took care of Vera for seventeen years, but eventually it was too much. Their mother took sick and Vida had them both in the house and working at the clinic by day. After a year it was getting worse, not better, and she saw no choice but to send Vera away to the mental hospital. Everyone said so. Everyone said as much at the beginning, but things got so bad even Vida had to agree.
The twins don’t look so much alike anymore, although they are said to be identical, and they still have the same eyes looking wide and way out into the world. Not like Mrs. Williams’…
(Again I mention, I’m not telling the story of the US invasion of Grenada here; that story is being told by the people who lived the revolution start to finish… and it actually isn’t finished. It’s their story to tell, and there are several important first-hand accounts, but what got me obsessed with this novel was the US bombing of the hospital near the jail, and the response in the media and the Catholic bishop in Grenada as well. “Oops…” As if this collateral damage is a small thing, these lives lost of little importance given the military objectives.)