Back to the novel… back at the house…

(Back to the story of this family caught up in a revolution, some of them who were making the revolution that now seems brutally ended, such that “dead is real dead”)

It was Sunday the last time they all ate together.  They had been to the beach earlier that day, Art, Vida and the kids, and Art was leaning back licking his lips, although there was no moisture and they had finished all the drinks.  Vida had called the kids, called them to come and they ignored her but instead of getting cross as she might, she looks over to Art, sees him watching her, brings her index finger to her lip and places a kiss on the end of her finger.  Slowly she brings her finger down on his zipper just below his belt, and his eyes get wet and his head fills with confusion and the top of his head creeps as if it might lift off, and he forgets everything so he can slip into the sea, to wait for Vida.  She follows him into the waves.

Here there should be some consideration of the body count, although no one is actually counting bodies.  There were several bodies left up by the fort, against the wall, blood spewing out of the bodies like rivers running into the road, dripping off the edge of the road onto the sand that turned dark purple, blood mixing with blood.  But then even these bodies went missing, and whose bodies were they anyway?  All Vida knows is that Arthur, goes the report, was wounded but not dead.  Or dead.  Or had been disappeared after the invasion.  No one knows.  What remains is simply grief, and how dead can dead be if there is just the wide open generalized grief?

Here we must assume, dead is real dead.  Here three days dead, in this heat, means so dead the intestines fill with gas, swelling the abdomen and forcing frothy red mucus out the nostrils and mouth.  Smell, touch, taste, common senses all die with the body.  The Philosopher believed that sight and sound, only those remote senses, could apprehend beauty and that beauty is immortal.  The aesthetic of the dead doesn’t rely on physical proximity and contact.  And those who do not see with living eyes, with human ears, they are not beside the point, but here the point is a stretch of land that was taken first in St. Michael’s, an island of rock and soft earth, and the poets warn that those who do not know the softness of the earth are swallowed by it, that those who seek their immortality are consumed whole.  Monuments were built for the revolution and the metal may now be melted down as scrap.  Books will be written about the heroes, but eventually the books will be lost.

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When housekeeping becomes researching

Cleaning out my office, I found a book of poems from the Grenada revolution, Freedom Has No Price; an anthology of poems, printed 1980. The anthology has a forward stapled in, that opens with a quote:

I
must be given words
to refashion futures
like a healers hand…

E. Brathwaite

This little collection, without so much as an ISBN number or a named editor, has the actual words of the actual people who hoped that the revolution would change their lives, and it certainly did.  The book was published for the “Festival of the Revolution March 1-13 1980” it says on the front cover.  A year into the revolution.  Its contributors are listed on the back, a fourteen-year-old student, Alice Paul.  A poem of Mildred V. Julien that particularly speaks to me.  “There is nothing, nothing at all.”  I look her up at the back of the book:  “71 year old housewife of St. Pauls”  is all it says, but that is something.

I repeat:  I’m not trying to tell the story of the Grenada revolution. in my novel.  They tell their own story, as they do in this book of poetry.  This little revolution that lasted just three years and a bit, that the US Government decided to crush entirely after it imploded anyway.  I am writing a novel.  I make shit up.  Still, I went there twice, sat in the press box through weeks of the trial, and now I find this chapbook of their poetry that speaks to me.  Mildred, there is something here, not nothing, nothing at all.  I’ll make plans to go back.  The rum factory where we delivered some big pieces of the still in the back of a pickup is now part of a tour I can take for $240 once I get there.  The black sands beach, of course, is still there.  Some things don’t change.  Now… to get back to the novel.  I need to finish this and only the first part is set in the Carribean.

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“This part is history, but life is not just memory…”

Actually, no one except Vida has any idea what Mrs. Williams thinks about Vida and her children, let alone about the revolution and its leader.   The church has one idea, Mrs. Williams another about some things.  Vida knows that.  Mrs. Williams said as much.  A breeze was blowing in the window, filling up the white curtains that swell like clouds into the room, and time was swinging back and forth, the curtain so much like the white lace that hung in Vida’s dining room in the old house where she had grown up, curtains that swelled like clouds until her own mother went over and tied a knot, and Vida sat amazed to see Mrs. Williams do just what her own mother had done, to tie up a cloud.  Vida understood, while Arthur would draw her attention back to Raymond sitting there at the table, Arthur scolding him, teasing the head of state, even in front of the children.

– Your manners are worse than the babies’.  Wait your turn.  Mary, take your time there … You’ll choke on your cake if you run with it in your mouth… It will catch in your throat… Listen, Mary, in such a hurry…  Remember, home isn’t the place you stop by at; it’s the place you’re coming from…

The cake was warm and wet in their mouths.  This part is history, but life is not just memory.

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Maurice Bishop and Fidel Castro speak

Reading Maurice Bishop Speaks, now twenty-five years after his death, Bishop’s optimism is striking, just months and even days before he was killed, the revolution crashed and then the US invaded this small island nation.  It’s heartbreaking.

Fidel Castro’s words in the appendix are equally startling to read all these years later, when the level of political discourse here in the U.S. is so low that one seeks comedy send-ups for relief.  There’s no comedy here, though, certainly not in this slim volume.

It would be arrogant and wild to presume that I could depict the scope of heroism and tragedy that unfolded on that tiny island nation, one of the smallest countries in the world.  I write fiction.  For history, I recommend the letters, speeches, and public records in Bishop Speaks; The Grenada Revolution 1979-83.

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… “She must consider strategies…” Back to the novel:

 

Arthur.  Last seen with Theodore.  Wounded.  Vida will have to reach Theodore’s wife, Claudia.  Claudia will know what must be done.  So much must be done, and there are so few options, so little that can be done.  Vida walks on.

Just a few months ago they were all sitting there, Claudia and Theodore with Art and Vida at Mrs. Williams’ house.  Mrs. Williams had cooked a big Sunday supper.  Vida’s two kids were running away from the table, and Vera, to whom Vida is both sister and mother, is in the hospital so she couldn’t be there, but she is remembered in the grace.

It used to be that Theodore and Claudia joined them most Sundays for supper and, before Theodore married Claudia, he, Vida, and Arthur would come, scarfing up as much food as Mrs. Williams put on the table.  Lately it was only Arthur, Vida, the kids, and sometimes Raymond, the leader, that Mrs. Williams invited.  She was proud to host him, but didn’t completely approve of the leader, wasn’t sure how she might vote if it were ever to come to a vote.  And this woman, Claudia, built like a stump and with such mouth, wearing those men’s pants here to dinner and not much caring what people thought of her language.  In front of the children.

In fact, Mrs. Williams doesn’t completely approve of what any of the children are doing, but she was content to have them here, to feed them, particularly Vida and the children, these grandchildren, Mary and Jimmy, who have finished their plates of fish and potatoes.

Most of the food, the walnut salad, potatoes and dasheen, all the vegetables Mrs. Williams grew herself.  What she is most proud of in her garden is the walnut tree that has been bearing nuts since Arthur was born.  It was given to them as a wedding gift.  There are walnuts in the salad and stuffing the meat for a feast like this.   Mrs. Williams only has to buy a bit of meat and some plantains to boil and some rice, or she can even pluck one of the yard fowl.  She does this despite the times that are changing and moving so fast it makes the old woman’s head shake, she says, shaking her head.

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Remembering Maurice Bishop

“Come all you who labor, not knowing what’s been gained, who give life to words long spoken, may God be with you all that day.”

These words from a song composed by Michael Arbour go through my mind every Labor Day.  And this Labor Day, this book with the words of Maurice Bishop lay open on a tray, leader of the Grenada Revolution, slain so young… Yet this book remains open, with his words.   He gave them life.  He gave his life.

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That bar…

(I’m imagining here the bar Vida herself is imagining… I remember a bar packed on a Sunday night, people dancing well into the night because it was Sunday and they’d have to begin their workweek in just a few hours.  In Toronto where I had made my home people partied like this, packed bars, on Friday and Saturday night but on Sunday they were going to bed early, to prepare for their work week.  It was the opposite pattern here, Friday sometimes quiet, people resting up but Sunday letting loose… a kind of resistance in partying, resistance against this system of selling our lives, as laborers, by the hour.  I’m reminded of the work of  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, how expressions of time as quantified, like a commodity, didn’t exist in English before industrialization when we started selling our labor by the hour.  Expressions like ‘time is money’ and ‘quit wasting my time’ make sense only if time is measured and commodified.)

            George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

 

That bar, the one at the end of her street, doesn’t even exist anymore, has been boarded up for two years.  This fury is idleness, and Vida would have to stay low now anyway for fear that the occupying forces will figure out how it was that she distinguished herself.  She might pick up the children and be back home before noon if the buses start running again; that is her adventure.  She will go back to Mrs. Williams’ house to pick up the children.

It’s going to get very hot today.  Already the humidity is rising after the rain, the air getting thick with a foggy haze across the hill.  Vida looks up to see it hugging the green ferns that grow near the top.  This is body rot hot weather, and Vida is a nurse after all.  She can well imagine what might be happening to a body in this heat.  A body does not cool quickly in death.  The blood does not circulate, but the organs continue to produce heat, so the body temperature actually rises.  It is the skin that changes first, the blood settling according to how the corpse is laid out, and the areas of skin where the blood does not pool changes to a dusky grey.  That is the look of death.  It tells the story, is unmistakable and the changes happen within hours; there is a death fever.  But Vida knows what she feels is only her own heat, and that this is the rising heat of the day, that she knows nothing, has no idea what is happening, of how they might dispose of Art’s body if there were a body.  She repeats this as a mantra to herself:  I just don’t know.

Even living bodies.  She must stop thinking about this, about the way that touch is dry and soft as silk and the way dry tenderness transforms to wet with passion in its rainy season.  All this is past and she must turn her attention away from what she desires in order to turn her attention to strategies.  The subject of bodies is not to be addressed, not now, not again, not soon.  She must consider strategies.

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Body of Land – research

So… I’m working on this novel and am taken back to the Reagan years in the US (though I didn’t even live in the US) and realize so much of what is happening now in the US (where I do live now) began then, with a policy of picking on or picking off smaller governments.  Or hand-picking foreign governments.  Now in the US we are experiencing this happening to us, with foreign interference in our elections,  and how people like Vida continue to resist… And so her story, our story, continues…

It is worse in her dreams.  Arthur is shot, bullets through his chest cavity opening him up to daylight, like the paintings she’s seen of St. Stephan, her black man’s head hanging toward the white martyr’s, talking like his body is glass.

– I have broken through the second ground.  I have climbed the second level.  See, the ground lies in splinters.

– My body is all eyes.  Look at it!  I look in all directions.

So his name now circulates.  So he is listed on the enemies’ list.  Vida straightens her legs and starts into town, sees a feint sliver of moon still visible ahead.  It looks like a hammock.  She walks down the street toward the center of town, the buildings and walls, stone on stone and brick on brick so nearly as they have always stood, except there is some smoke.  She does smell smoke.  Smoke fills her nostrils that flare.  The spring rain should have quelled any fires by now.

She looks down the street, and her breath catches in her throat.  There is nothing there, a hollow in the row of buildings and what is left of the police station is smouldering.  The wing that contained the prisoners’ cells is burnt down to rubble.  She closes her eyes against the fear of having lost Arthur for sure.  It is a blind fear that passes with sight as she opens her eyes and her mind slowly clears.

Almost certainly it was the street kids who set this fire.  The invading army had advanced with guns, not torches.  But some town kids in their uninterrupted tradition of half-hearted lawlessness had that energy released by the invasion, and they might have set the place ablaze. But they also would have let Arthur free if he was being held in there.  They would have boasted, and then Vida would have heard all about it, either from Arthur himself on the lam or from Claudia.  Claudia would have known and would have reached her if Arthur had either died or been set free in a fire like this.

So now where to look?  Where is one to look for a body on this body of land.  It is like looking for a needle in a haystack, or like the scriptures says, easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle, or a needle shot through the heel of the revolution and draining its blood.

 

Vida’s face is wet again, but it is no use her wiping it with her sleeve.  It is raining again now so hard she can no longer see the ship in the harbor through the rain.  Still at this hour there is no one around to ask about the fire, and she thinks now perhaps Mrs. Williams was right all along.  Don’t mess with the General, the older woman had counseled.  He might know how Vida distinguished herself.  He might know all about her, and there she is jogging his memory with her questions about Arthur.  Talk to someone lower down, or just talk to yourself, Vida, and stop this looking.  Stay home, Mrs. Williams had exhorted her.  Stay here with me and the children, at least for now.  At least ‘til you have to go away.

Vida puts up her umbrella and looks back over to where the police station is still smoking, wondering how with all the rain the fires can still burn.   Where is the white room that she dreams? Vida wonders.  A puddle is forming around her feet on the poured concrete, and she calculates:  if Arthur wasn’t in the police station then they most likely took him up the hill to the prison.  She has no way to get up there now except by walking, at least until the buses start running again.  Claudia’s car is out of fuel, and fuel is being rationed.  Cars are being searched and, in any case, if Arthur is up there at the prison then there is nothing she can do.  There is the other possibility, that Arthur is dead.  If Arthur is dead she still wants the body.  That is the point now, the body and what she must do.

Thought stops.  She’s here in town, the sun coming up, breaking through the rain clouds, and she is here, having come this far to get Art, and what did she think?  Her body fills up with rage slowly, and the truth nearly knocks her over.  Did she actually think he would be there at the station and that they would release him to her?  No, she didn’t ever think that.  What she wanted was to put this rage back on the man.  She knew she wouldn’t, that she couldn’t get that far but she had wanted to bang on the bars of Art’s grey cell.  She had pictured him in a cage, not a vast white room like in the courthouse, but there in a little cell of the local police station where she could let out her disappointment that was killing her, starting with a fury.  Four days now.  Everything that they had made is ruined and there are still two babies, a cretin sister, and an old woman.  And now what the hell is she, Vida, supposed to do?  Go back to his mom’s house?  This is the fourth day.

She covers her face against the wave of regrets welling up, and now she doesn’t want to go find him.  Instead she wants to go back to her own home, to take hold of her kids and wash their hair and plait Mary’s, tight and shining, then wash the house and wait, wait on the night as if she was younger with courage and bad manners, manners suitable to a woman who does what she wants.  And then when it gets dark and if the music were to start at the bar down the road she would put on her earrings and slip on her black high-heels like a pair she’s never owned and a black polished cotton dress that swishes around her knees – shh shh – like a mother but she is not that mother because she is still so young.  She would cross the dance floor with any man who has the time. Arthur hasn’t had the time for years.  Vida’s lungs fill up with this rage, and she can’t decide what she’s going to do.  A drop of rainwater drips off the branch she has passed, and she stops, wipes the water off her cheek with the back of her hand that makes her catch her breath, it looks so like her hand when she was a child, no paint on her nails now trimmed short, and this ring she wears looks nothing like a wedding ring.  Could be a little girl’s ring.  How would they know Art had a claim on her so that she, in turn, can claim him, claim his body.  She can start again, might have to start again.

Slowly she moves, slowly as if dizzy, but after the first few steps she exhales and all the rage seems to blow out of her lungs.  She looks actually deflated, smaller, older.  Her forehead furrows and deep creases stretch from beneath her flared nostrils to the corners of her mouth, and she starts again.  Her spine carries her away, the line of bones reaching up to her thin neck and extending down through the narrow of her back.  The sensation of love and defeat are almost the same now for her.  Vida and those she loves, the heroes in the revolution, the known and unknown, all the stories that are told and that which is not disclosed, Vida only wants to have the body, to get Arthur back, to repeat what cannot be repeated, to do the same again and again, no regrets, to invent and to repeat the invention.   Vida mutters, mutters under her breath although there is no one to hear her and no one whom she could prevent, by muttering, from hearing her – I will go home and look after my babies. Mary with her arm stretched over James in his sleep, Vida remembers.  She shakes her head, turns around.  She turns her back on the burnt-out police station, turns away from the prison on the hill that stares down on the road she is going to travel.  She begins winding her way back to Mrs. Williams’s house.  Her shoulders bend forward as she starts back down the hill, back toward Mrs. Williams’s house.

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Body of Land – “Curiosity is a man’s curse…”

… and in a woman it’s ten times worse.”

Where did I come up with that?  It’s not likely something I made up, and so I googled it… came up with nothing.  I suspect then it’s something I really heard, something someone said to me while I was doing this research.  Something of the island women’s wisdom, a risk I was taking doing this research.  Just get on with it, I told myself then and I tell myself now. These images have become almost commonplace but back then they still had the power to shock me, to move me to action – with a woman’s curiosity…)

No one has seen Arthur since the crisis, but those people Vida spoke with, even Claudia is said to believe that Arthur has gone up into the hills with Theodore.  Some suppose Art might have been captured with Theodore.  He was seriously wounded; that much is known.  He was shot through the leg up there at the fort, so he couldn’t run.  But he did run.

Of course, he must have been taken.  Vida imagines Arthur being dragged in between two husky marines, dragged into a big white room with his legs dangling limp, head bowed so that at first when he opens his eyes he sees his feet, although he doesn’t recognize them as his own, they seem so far away and all feeling is gone.  She imagines that he is virtually poured into the room, without words but again the sound of a body hitting the floor.  He moans and licks the blood dripping from his nose, sees red on the back of his hand after he touches it to his chin.  He examines his naked chest beneath the ripped fabric of his shirt.  The wound next to his nipple has already started to fester.  He doesn’t try to move.  Move, Art.  Be okay.  She imagines his blood pooling on the grey floor, wants to cradle his head in her lap.  Hey, Art, hey, bleed here.  She can only imagine cradling Arthur’s head; there is nothing else she has to offer.

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