Jamillah find Bitnay at the edge of Bark Park rubbing he backside up against a red manjack tree.
“Well, is about time you reach, no? We meet up wid Ashdrop Island so long ago me already hungry again,” he say.
From he actions Jamillah don’t want to tink what kind of hunger he satisfying. Bitnay was ninety-three years old already and even though she know him most of she life, she ain’t know ‘bout de needs and desires of flamingos.
“Hello, Bitnay,” Jamillah say, hauling out a bag. “I brought you some snacks.”
“Like what? What you got dere?” Bitnay old vocal cords had done lose de strength of youth. He talk is a harsh, breath filled croak. He push he words out he long, scrawny neck as he stop molesting de manjack tree and approach.
“I hope it ain’t more of dat woodlice you bring me last time. I ain’t like dat atall. And it better not be none of dat plant pottage allyou people does be eating neither. Just because allyou is vegetarian don’t mean we all is.”
Bitnay crane he neck to try see in de bag.
Holding it behind she back Jamillah say, “Bitnay, man. It Leavening Day. We gon’ have a nice day, or what?”
“What? What?” Bitnay say, using he long spindly legs to side step she, “I always having a nice day. What I must care about allyou people dem Leavening Day? I does be in de sky anytime I want. Allyou tink is anyting special to fly? Gimme.”
Jamillah rotate in a circle, tryna keep Bitnay from seeing in de bag, clutching de basket she carrying which laden down wid food for Edrid.
“Be nice, Bitnay.”
“I always nice,” he say, “you see my plumage, my neck? My beak? I is de definition of nice. De vision of nice. De sweetness of me niceness does flow from me like drool from a dog’s mouth.”
Bitnay thrust he leg behind one of Jamillah’s own and cause she to stumble. He grab de bag in he beak and run back to de tree.
“Bitnay!” Jamilliah spin round, trying to keep she burden level.
“You mad? Don’t be mad, Jamillah. In truth, me ain’t care if you is mad. Is you who need me. Allyou could make allyou islands float up in de air, but you still need me to fly you about, no matter how high you land is. Ah, barnacles,” he say, “good. I like barnacles. So you ain’t schupid after all.”
Jamillah sat down wid she back to de tree and spread de bag wider so he could reach more easy.
Leavening Day. De days when all de Caribbean islands levitate into de sky and fit together, close as teeth. Bitnay well know it make dem special. How many times dey had rise up to escape hurricane? De wind alone woulda pluck every feather from he fat belly, long neck, tiny head self, and dat’s if he survive.
Leavening Day. De days when all de Caribbean islands levitate into de sky and fit together, close as teeth. Bitnay well know it make dem special. How many times dey had rise up to escape hurricane?
She suck she teeth. She not gon’ get caught up in Bitnay rudeness today. Is Carnival. Dey not ascending for safety, but for fun and festivities. Today gon’ be a good day. Today, by Bitnay’s good grace, she gon’ visit she son, Edrid and she hope all de joy and pleasure swirling in de air bring she luck too. Dis time.
“Dey good?” Jamillah ask, “I pick dem fresh for you last night. Dey sweet like de ones from Botany Bay I bring you three years ago?”
“What schupidness you talking? You tink I could remember what some trifling treat you throw down me throat fifteen flaminglets ago had taste like?” He gooble up some more barnacles even though he mouth still full of de last batch. “Well, not precisely fifteen,” he say, “spraying shell bits, “as me and Maureen, dat’s Mrs. Bitnay to you, as you done know, had lose three eggs in time gon’ by.”
Jamillah ain’t say nothing, busying sheself brushing barnacle crumbs off she pants. She know precisely how many flaminglets Mr. and Mrs. Bitnay had grieve. De sound of de two a dem in mourning had sit beside she own grief til she tear ducts raw.
“Dese is good, yes,” Bitnay admit, “bundle up de rest of dem for later. Is time we take off now. You gon’ have me out too late as it is, and exhausted too, carrying you. You get fat? Fatter?”
Jamillah sigh. Yes, she had round up a little bit in de past year, but dat ain’t matter. De kind of carrying done in a jump-in ain’t like he have to lift she on he back. He have to, and she have to, combine a mental picture of sheself. De agreeing on what she look like does be de problem. When dey settle on an image den de jumper, in dis case Bitnay, does ‘swallow’ de joiner into he mind. Bitnay would suck de whole of Jamillah, and everyting she wearing and carrying, in through he nose holes, he mouth, he feather follicles, any and every part of he adjacent to dat which ain’t Bitnay. Jamillah would disappear from de world and be inside of Bitnay, whole and complete, de only sign of she presence a bright, glowing, green and white light shining from where Bitnay had place she in he mind.
De discussion get contentious as de two of dem try to agree on Jamillah’s appearance and mood. Jamillah seeing sheself fitting, a little snugly, into she mango leaf green jumpsuit wid tiny orange and yellow flamboyant flower petals sprinkled about. Jamillah believing she projecting excitement and hope. Bitnay say he seeing a big brown woman, straight up and down like de trunk of a pine tree, cover over in a moldy moss infestation wid orange and yellow splotches of decay. Bitnay say she projecting fear and worry. Finally, dey settle on an image, but Jamillah was dismay because in more of Bitnay’s image of how she look and feel had make de picture.
Bitnay move off from de tree and run splashing through Frog Lip Pond, flapping he wings to take off. She pick out she own house from de vista below her. Bright yellow, circled by flambouyant trees, all blooming in de fire orange color of ripe mamey apple.
“What dat is? A fire?” Bitnay make a swooping turn in de air and drop down so fast Jamillah feel she belly shaking hands wid she neck.
“Where?” Jamillah call out, looking ‘round. She own eyes could roam ‘round separate from Bitnay own.
“Dere. Right dere. Down by allyou main Healing Tree, Ancestress Sayba. You ain’t see de flames?”
Fear jump in Jamillah like lightening widout no thunder. De Ancestress Tree, Sayba, a silk cotton tree, is Jamillah teacher, guide and friend. Is Ancestress Tree Sayba who de Calendarist had send Jamillah to after naming she a Root, Branch and Leaf Talker. Ancestress Tree Sayba had explain dat Jamillah would be de most helpful and de most happy when she use she talent for communing wid de trees and plants. She was to relay to de people what healing de land, animals, vegetation or people required. She would have to make sure it got done, too. Assigning dem to accept de ministrations of whatever healing tree would be best. Jamillah had been nine. She had wanted to be a Carnival costume designer. Or maybe a secret finder, searching through de caves and tunnels of de island. She cried all de way home. But over de years, as Ancestress Tree Sayba had continue to welcome she in she dark hollow, Jamillah’s future ain’t hurt she like she had thought it would.
Jamillah had been nine. She had wanted to be a Carnival costume designer. Or maybe a secret finder, searching through de caves and tunnels of de island.
“Dat ain’t no fire, Bitnay. Why you scare me so? Dat is just de Mas Camp Revelers. Dey doing De Colors of Sunset dis year.”
“Oh,” Bitnay say, disappointed, “I does forget how allyou like to dress up and pretend allyou is someting you ain’t.” He turn back ‘round and rise higher in de air again.
“Speaking of pretending,” Bitnay go on, “when last you see Edrid?
Jamillah sigh. She look down in time to see the small fissure where Tania and Waterfall Island fit together and know dey ain’t even halfway dere yet. Das de ting ‘bout Bitnay, she tink, he does see a lot and talk it all. Most people tink de birds, de animals, de plants and trees, de insects even, don’t be studying dem, but Jamillah know, from communing wid Ancestress Tree Sayba, dat every living ting does study ‘bout every other living ting becausin everyone survival depend upon everyone else.
She know Edrid ain’t depend on she for survival, not after dese twenty-two years. But still, as he mother, she does worry. De basket of carrots, corn and papaya in she mind’s arms heavy like guilt.
She ain’t answer Bitnay.
Bitnay drop so low Jamillah could hear de splash when he guano hit de water of the marshy wetland near a stand of flamingoes. She hear plenty honks and croaks as Bitnay fly low over dem, dropping guano all de while. Bitnay always say he enriching de environment when he do dat and she know is true, she just need to get him to drop it over by de ailing breadfruit tree. “Ah,” he say, “dem barnacles as smooth coming out as dey were going in.” He flap he wings so hard dat Jamillah tink she feel she brains vibrating as he throw dem at de sky once more.
Dey pass over a field of pineapples and Jamillah imagine she could smell de ripening fruit. She wonder what Edrid was doing right now. Foraging for food? Sleeping? Wondering when she would arrive? Would he even remember dat today was Leavening Day?
Between de two of dem dey zone in on Edrid pretty easy. He had tell dem he like dis area near de scattering of boulders on de smallest beach on St. Doubleside. He say de tide does tickle he belly and tail in just de right way, de sea grapes does be sweet even before dey ripe and he and de mongoose does play Rock, Feather, Shell for snacks all night.
“Hi, baby,” Jamillah call out, as Bitnay try to shush she, “how you doing?”
“He doing just fine,” Bitnay whisper.
And den Jamillah notice dat Edrid ain’t scratching he underbelly on de spotted rock.
“Hi, Mama,” Edrid yell, out of breath, “gimme a few minutes and I gon’ be right wid you. Thanks for coming.”
He make couple few croaking grunts and he start to shake. Sometimes it sound like a laugh and sometimes it sound like something else.
“Ha!” he say, “Dat was funny. Get it, Lita? Get it, Mama? You came and I came too. Get it?” Edrid do a dismount foreign to most turtles and move heself to look he partner in de eye. “Did you like dat? Or should I start again when dey gone?”
“You gon’ have to start again, Edrid. I lost de rhythm when I hear all dat flapping overhead.”
“All right, sugar tail, I gon’ continue when peace is ours.”
Jamillah had done realize dat she wasn’t de main focus of Edrid’s attention and had turn she eyes away. Bitnay release she from de jump-in and she fall down hard on she backside. When she rise to she feet again, dusting sheself off and checking for she basket of food, she find Bitnay still staring at Edrid and …..whoever. She kick he hard in de knee.
“What you kick me for? Is a natural ting. I glad to see folks happy and having a good time.”
“It’s a private time. Show some discretion, no? You raise in a barn?”
“No, I raise on a beach, and if you see what I see on beaches.…”
“Mama, so nice to see you,” Edrid say, dis is Lita. You remember her, don’t you? You met her last time you were here. Just two months ago, right?”
Jamillah woulda like to say she remember her, yes, but she does try not to tell too many lies so she ain’t say nothing. She look familiar, but Jamillah hadn’t bother to plant she name in she mind last time, tinking she’d never see her again since she never see she before. Dis time she look at de turtle, who had just sidesaddle sheself from under she son, more carefully. She was well older dan Edrid, had rheumy eyes and de scars on she red and yellow dotted shell ain’t come from bush thorns alone.
“Hello, Jamillah,” de turtle said.
“I remember you,” Bitnay butt in, “you was feeding Edrid shrimp last time I saw you. I lie?’
“No, sir. You do not lie. I was feeding him shrimp.”
“I knew it,” Bitnay turn to Edrid, “so you is happy or what? We could go back home now? I tired.”
“No, we can’t go back home now. We just reach. I want to talk to my son. Alone.”
“Don’t you ‘Mama’ me.”
“Now, Jamillah, don’t be a gnat,” Bitnay say.
“That’s right, Mama Jamillah,” de miscreant say, trying to put some respect in she words, “it’s good to see you again. Don’t be a gnat.”
“A knot?” Jamillah ask.
“Not a knot, Jaaaamilllah,” Bitnay draw out she name as if he teaching she know how to say it, “a gnat. A buzzing ‘round de place bug what only de Creator know de use for.”
“Allyou shut you useless mouths,” Jamillah shout. “Scatter and leh me have some time alone wid me son, no? I come all dis way to discourse wid allyou over schupidness? Scatter!”
“Mr. Bitnay, gentle sir, won’t you come away wid me to partake of some fine wormsnail salad dat Fanso Roto made dis selfsame morning? Leh we leave mother and son alone for a bit. I hope dey have a pleasant visit,” she raise she voice, “even if one of dem have de manners of a goat.” Lita turn she freshly polished shellback on Jamillah and move off.
“I would be happy to dine wid you, most generous Lita,” Bitnay say, “knowing food would take ‘way he boredom, “but don’t disparage goats so easily. Did I ever tell you about my friend, Rudbah? And how he and de cow-foot woman had save one of me and Maureen’s, dat’s Mrs. Bitnay to you, flaminglets from a jaguarundi cat?”
Jamillah settle sheself down on de bare dirt ground, tugging on she too tight green jumpsuit so it don’t ride so hard in she crotch. De sky blue, de dirt brown and ain’t no trees around. A little ways off she could see some sea grass and beyond dat some coco plum bushes. She rivet she eyes back to she son and let she heat cool down, wondering how to start.
“So, how are you, Edrid? I brought you some goodies. Are you eating enough? How’s your host, Fanto Roso? Please tell him I said hello. Is that rude heifer his mate? Was that him or you? Just now. What’s going on here? You all right?”
“Hi, Mama,” Edrid say, “I’m fine. How are you?”
Jamillah ain’t like where Edrid throw de conversation but she know she ask too much at once. She answer he question wid a piece of she life.
“I’m healthy, thanks to de blessings of de healing trees I work so closely wid, but I’m really a mess. I want you back, Edrid, de real you. Dat’s all I can concentrate on and I not functioning as I should.”
When de words come out she mouth she know she spouting ‘Mama guilt’ but she go on.
“Is my fault you been trap here so long, living a half-life, share wid a creature so different from de way you was born.”
“Ain’t your fault, Mama. And I like it.”
Jamillah open she mouth to say how it was her fault because she had let Edrid see she and others performing de Palé rituals widout tinking he would try dem heself. Her fault becausin she hadn’t watched he closely enough dat Leavening Day. Her fault because she, one of the de best Leaf, Branch and Tree Talkers in generations, whose Mother was a Listener and Father was a Healer, who had access to most of de thinkers and diviners and scientist of de Sky Islands, who could, after all, confound de whole rest of the world wid dere ability to elevate theyselves into de Creator’s own domain, she, wid all dese resources, couldn’t get she only baby out a rassdamn turtle. Den she hear he words.
“You like it?” She tongue stick to de roof of she mouth. De question come out like corn silk peeling away from de cob, quiet and complicated.
Edrid did something den dat Jamillah had never see he do before. He flip heself onto he back, exposing he underbelly, making heself vulnerable. Den he fling heself over again and walk up close to Jamillah. Taking he time, he scrabble he way over she crossed ankles, up she left calf and over she knee and onto she thigh.
“Pick me up, please, Mama,” he say, “I want to talk wid you eye to eye.”
Jamillah hesitate. She ain’t touch Edrid since de time she had try to take him away from here forcibly. Dat had been a disaster. By de time Jamillah had reach de fifty strides or so back to where Bitnay was napping Edrid had done turn white. Shell, head, feet and all. He couldn’t even speak to tell she what was wrong or what to do. She ain’t understand it den and she ain’t learn to understand it in all de years since. Fanso Roto had leave dis place. He mash-up wid Edrid on dere home island, Tania. Why couldn’t she bring dem both back to Tania? She ain’t know what was wrong but she know Edrid feeling colder and colder in she hands, he head drooping and he two eyes gazing beyond life. She turn back and put him on de ground again, trying for de same spot she had lift him from. Heart pounding, she lay full front on de soil, trying to commune wid all and any of de healing trees for forgiveness, guidance and help. She ain’t hear no answer, but as she peek up through she concentration and blurry eyes she see de whitish film of Edrid’s death recede. When Edrid was strong enough to move he crawl close to he mother face, turn ‘round and snuggle between she neck, face and outstretch arm. Jamillah cry even harder, feeling de fear and need of she son. Reminded once again of she helplessness.
Dey had stay like dat, rubbing cheeks together, quiet, til Edrid say, “I’m okay now, Mama. I tink.”
It was de first day she had find him. He was only ten years old. Almost half his life spent living inside an old man turtle and he trying to tell she he all right. Jamillah laugh choke up wid pain. De rockstone in she throat had make she words tumble and grind ‘pon on another.
He was only ten years old. Almost half his life spent living inside an old man turtle and he trying to tell she he all right.
“Oh, Ed-rid, I so so-rry. I ain’t kn-know it would hurt youuu,” she try breathe through de closing throat and go on. “Me only try take you hh-home. Keep you safe. Have you near. I sorry. I sorry. You sure you feel all right?”
Edrid ain’t answer. He make a high, squeaking sound. Over and over. Tears leak out he eyes. He body shudder as he pull he head far inside he shell and den thrust it out again to rub he face on Jamillah own. He cry. Jamillah cry, too, crooking she two arms to hold as much of him as she could.
Den he tell her how de ting happen.
“I meet up wid a turtle,” he say, “one I never see before. I had try talking to he but de turtle ain’tself answer me. So I had tink maybe de turtle couldn’t understand me becausin he not from ‘round here, where everybody and everyting could talk to one another. If dey get de learning.”
Edrid had stop and draw he head into he front shell again. He back legs scrabble on she shoulder but he ain’t move away.
“I had see allyou grown-ups do it. Make Palé and I had try de ting too. ‘Cept I ain’t know whatall I ain’t know and I do it wrong. I had only see allyou movements and hear allyou words, mostly beggy tings like ‘if it pleases you’ and ‘would you like to?’ I ain’t know ‘bout de other training and how you got to say what you want and make sure dey understand. I ain’t know dey had to want to talk to you, too. Is Fanso Roto who tell me what I do wrong. Later.”
Edrid tell how he had dance ‘round de turtle in a fast rhythm. How he lay down in de dirt and blow all he air out into Fanso Roto face.
“Come play wid me,” he had chant. He tell how he had swirl he dirty hands, already grimy from de marble pitching, tree climbing and handstands he had already do dat day, ‘round he own head and den around de turtle head. He had rise up on he knees and draw boxes and circles ‘round de silent turtle as Fanso Roto was dodging dis way and dat.
“Den Fanso Roto stop trying to get away. He snap out he head and bite me.”
Edrid make de squeaking sound, but lower in pitch. And to Jamilliah, it ain’t come like sorrow dis time but like laughter.
“So dat’s what happen, Mama. Me conjury was ‘rude and outta place’ like you used to say and instead of being able to talk wid and play wid de turtle I became de turtle. Kind of like a jump-in. But forever.”
Jamillah’s tears had make a small puddle near Edrid’s foot. He tap it, watching de pattern of de mud.
“Fanso Roto tell me later dat he had come to Tania to visit he cousins. He was so vex, and so embarrass, dat he hadn’t been able to shield heself from me, and couldn’t shake me out, dat he turn off, leave Tania and come back home, carrying me wid him.”
Jamillah and Edrid had lay together in de dirt til de sandflies start to bite and Bitnay say is time to go.
Edrid was so different dis time. So different even from when she had see him months ago.
De joy she felt on holding she baby boy, a twenty-seven-year-old turtle man-boy, in she two hands was unexpected. Oh, Sayba! De mixture of textures on she fingers. De last three fingers of she hand cradled he belly while she stroked he shell wid she thumb and forefinger. Hard, smooth and cool on dis hot day, she roam de pad of she fingertips over he top wid she eyes closed. Her son. De essence of she son. Right here in she hands.
“Mama,” Edrid say, “open your eyes, look at me.”
Edrid’s voice was small in she ears. She had raise he to she chest. Now she bring he higher to watch he eye to eye.
“I’m happy,” Edrid say.
Jamillah watch he, trying to decipher de expression and emotion on de face of a reptile. A reptile she birthed. A reptile she loved.
“I happy,” Edrid repeat. “I wish you could imagine how good my life is. But I ain’t sure you can tink dat far away from you own experience.”
Jamillah was startle by how grown he sound now, how settled. He words steady and strong even if he voice sound small.
“My life ain’t like yours. Not at all what you probably expected mine to be like, either. I didn’t even have expectations, before I became who I is. But who I is now, is good. I like it.”
“But what happen?” Jamillah ask, “What make you change so from de last time I see you? You had barely want to talk to me. And when you did you was full of sarcasm and sadness. Angry.”
“I know. I sorry. I ain’t want to tell you but I was sick. In a lot of pain.”
“Sick? Oh, Sayba! You was sick? What happen? You better now? I could call….”
“Wait, Mama,” Edrid say, “just listen for a while, okay?”
Jamillah look to de sky. De bright blueness gone and de sun cloak sheself in silvery clouds. Jamillah hear Bitnay and de miscreant, Lita, rustling de grass nearby.
“Let’s sit down, Mama. How ‘bout you put me on dat rock,” he swing he neck to de left, away from de grass, “so we could be almost eye to eye if you sit down, too.”
Jamillah ain’t ‘custom to feeling she legs tremble as she walk. She hands shake too when she release Edrid onto de rock. She hold onto de boulder as she lower sheself to de ground.
“I, we, had an infection, when you was last here. It was hurting bad.”
“It gone now, Edrid? I could bring you some…”
“Okay. I listening.”
“We had get in a fight,” Edrid say.
Jamillah pull she lips into she mouth and bite down.
“Me and Fanso Roto, we get along well enough. He teach me a lot. He don’t talk too much and he say I talk a lot. He like to sleep and I like to walk. I like to sing.…”
“Wait. What? You could sing, Edrid?”
“Yes, I does sing good. I de best singer ‘round here. I have six songs dey like to hear de most, but a lot of de time I does just sing whatever I feeling. Anyway, Fanso Roto like my singing cause he does get attention too.”
“I see,” Jamillah say, humbled. Is a lot she ain’t know ‘bout Edrid life.
“It’s dat attention what get us in de fight. Five Foot Maji, dat’s what everybody does call him on account of he have four foot, yes, but he also have what look like a next half foot growing out he left side. Well, he see Fanso Roto, we was together, of course,” Edrid make de laughing sound, “me and Fanso Roto was sleeping under de coconut tree wid Lita when Five Foot Maji come and push up under we shoulder, trying to flip us. He want Lita for he own, but Lita don’t want he and Fanso want for Lita whatever Lita want. So we was fighting. Mama, when I tell you it was from twilight to starlight, humph,” Edrid do a really good humph, Jamillah tink “we bite and scratch and wrestle til we, all three, was tired. Lita had try to help every now and again, but she was only getting in de way. When we stop, just staring at one another, me and Fanso Roto see dat Five Foot Maji was in even worse shape dan we. He back off. We collect Lita and go home. But we was plenty wounded.”
“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.”
“Is soon after dat you come to see me and I, we, was in a bad way. But den, after, when we wasn’t oozing pus and blood and de pain had gone, I realize, is den I come to know, dat I had fight so hard becausin I had want to live. Dat I like me life. I like Fanso Roto. I like Lita. I happy. I just ain’t stop to tink on it.”
Edrid look hard into Jamillah’s eyes. He blink slowly. Once, twice.
“Becausin I didn’t tink I was ‘sposed to be happy. I know you love me and you wasn’t happy ‘bout me. You was always looking for ways to make me change. Change back. And I didn’t tink I was ‘sposed to be happy de way I was. De way I am.”
It was Jamillah’s turn to close she eyes. She push away she thoughts, knowing she must reason dem out later. She reach out she two hands, letting dem feel dere way up de sides of de boulder. She hands reach de top. She bring dem together. Slowly. Questing. Til she feel de edges of Edrid’s shell between she palms. And de soft puff of he breath as he breathe out into she face.
“So you good now?” Bitnay had ask when dey had jump-in again and was almost home.
“I getting there,” Jamillah say, “is a long, bumpy ride, but I on de way.”
“Good,” Bitnay say, swooping down low to drop guano near a breadfruit tree.
“Allyou Carnival day is for pretending,” Bitnay say, soaring back into de sky, “de rest of de time allyou does just be plucking me tail feathers wid you hard-headed, flea chasing schupidness. How many times I done tell you? Don’t watch de ripples, watch de waves.”
Celeste Rita Baker is a Virgin Islander. Her stories have been included in The Caribbean Writer, Moko, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and other publications. She is a proud 2019 graduate of Clarion West Science Fiction Writers Workshop. Her website is celesteritabaker.com