“Sister Rose” by Topher Allen

She hoards bread knives and boxes of matches under her mattress. She folds leaves -ripped from notebooks – into quarters and cuts them at the creases. Despite my fear she has never harmed anyone or set the house on fire. Her head is always wrapped with two bandanas at once, the colours never matching. Sometimes she stands up stiff in the centre of the kitchen like an island; her eyes fixed onto the wallpaper above the stove, cheeks sagging, a spoon in the left hand, the right cupped but empty, and the refrigerator door left wide open. But that won’t cool madness, for madness is a smoke signal; a high flame under a slowly spinning brain.

The children at church ask me all the time, “Is what happen to Sister Rose why she going mad?” As if madness is not a destination but a never-ending voyage; the mind travelling, like light between the earth and the moon.

“Sister Rose is not mad mi darling, is sick she sick.” But according to her brothers, she passed sick a mile back and her head keeps going. For it’s mostly animals, lifeless objects and duppy she talks to. And she answers them too you know, plenty times I hear her having a full-fledged conversation with her father. But the last time I checked, my husband lay down fleshless on his back in Church Pen Cemetery. I couldn’t even determine the location of his grave right now, let alone the whereabouts of his spirit. Five years ago was the last time I went to Church Pen and it was to bury his mother. I couldn’t find his grave because they cut down the guinep tree he was buried under. It seemed they mixed cement on the graves because many were nameless, and I didn’t want to give flowers to the wrong dead; that kind of thing is bad luck.

But when you think about it, times have really changed you know. My husband, Danny, was buried long before his mother. That is not how I saw it happen before; it was always the older people who died first, like my parents. But this story is not about the changing tides of death, but about how by the push and the pull of the moon against the head, the tides of the mind can ebb and flow in different waves.

She was a hard child to deal with yes and she had some ways that made you question her sanity, but she was normal. She read her bible regularly and her favourite game was sword-in-hand. She spoke eloquently and didn’t do too poorly in school either. When she graduated she signed up to be a correctional officer. She did the exams and passed with very good grades. But that August when she reported for the medical examination they sent her right back home and told her to apply again in a year’s time. By then the baby would be born and it will be able to manage without her for twelve full weeks – the time it would take to complete the training. That is how I found out that Rose was pregnant. And although she was an adult, we are a church family so she was not supposed to be having sex out of marriage. I didn’t bother to bawl about it though, for it didn’t even make any sense at that point. I just got down on my knees and ask God for forgiveness on her behalf. I don’t know if that is how forgiveness works but I am still asking; the most God can do is close heavens windows.

Back then it was a disgrace for a Christian girl to get pregnant without being married. It wasn’t like now when I see Sister Pat’s daughter with her big stomach sit down on the choir like a pleased puss. But it would have been an even bigger disgrace, if Rose had aborted the pregnancy and the church found out. Our parson had a dirty style of blurting out people’s business on the pulpit in the name of Jesus. Then you would be so ashamed that you either stop going to church or you would be the last one to arrive for service and the first to leave. You would have to sit at the back pew and when it was time to greet everybody, none of the other young ladies in the church would shake your hand, because pregnancy was a contagious disease.

But I made up my mind that I was not going to allow that to happen to Rose. I shipped her off to stay with my sister, Clarice, in Buff Bay until she had the baby. Clarice couldn’t get pregnant so she would keep the child and send back Rose when the baby was weaned. But while Rose was gone, if anybody asked me for her, I told them that she was gone to train to become a correctional officer. It wasn’t too far from the truth because the little boy she had, turned out to be a scammer. At this very moment he is in a cell in Spanish Town prison.

You see, Clarice would call me and complain that even though Rose had gotten baptised at twelve and despite the belly, she wouldn’t leave the Friday night karaoke bar alone, neither could she stop Rose from going to church. She sang at the bar and weaselled herself onto the youth choir at Buff Bay Baptist.

Danny had a gold ring that he boasted about the number of karats in it. I use to joke with him that one day a rabbit was going to eat off the ring and bite off his finger in the process. Rose wore the ring to make the church people believe that she was married. I couldn’t blame her; perhaps I would have done the same thing. She is not a bad girl you know, and pastor always loved when she led praise and worship. When Rose sang you would’ve thought it was any angel of the Lord come down. It was as if her voice scratched an itch on your heart. That is why they pay her a lot of money when she sings at karaoke, and that is how she helped me to send her and her brothers to school. I am not so academically qualified so I take on domestic duty to make ends meet, but that could hardly stretch to feed three children, especially when Danny died.

The children at church ask me all the time, “Is what happen to Sister Rose why she going mad?” As if madness is not a destination but a never-ending voyage; the mind travelling, like light between the earth and the moon.

After she had the baby, Rose came back to me differently. She left Macka Tree District a pleasant girl, but returned with a face that could rival the seriousness of any life-threatening disease. You would think her face will shatter if she cracked a smile. She also lost the singing talent. Rose would wind strands of her hair around her index fingers and tug on them until they came loose from her head. That left several bald patches above and behind her ears; her head looked like a half-burnt cane field. She refused to sleep or shower and only wore her brother’s diamond sock on one foot. I am often frightened out of sleep at two or three in the morning by her antics. Once, she hid my blood pressure pills and we quarrelled for the whole neighbourhood to hear. Another time she plastered faeces above the jamb of her bedroom door. She said she had gotten news from God that the angel of death was coming to kill all first-born daughters.

I hoped it was a demon possession, something I could pray away. But madness is stubborn; it arrives by the pound and goes by the ounce. I wondered also if it was my mouth that caused her to get to this, for one day when she was a little girl she told me a barrage of swear words.

I declared, “remember this, you little gyal, a curse of shit will fall down on you for talking to your mother like that.”

I don’t believe people can just go mad so. You are either born that way or your head starts going very late in life; not in your early twenties. When a person starts getting off their head so soon, they more than likely got an extra push; perhaps somebody set her so.

And so I woke up one morning when dew and darkness was still settled on grass blades. Rose and I got dressed in white and my son drove us to Father Sherlock’s mansion in St. Thomas. We arrived well before the sun could climb the hills and shoot its light-arrows through the fog. Flags of red, green, yellow and white were hoisted in the front yard. Father met us at the gate fixing the pencil lodged in his red turban. As he walked his white robe brushed his ankles like our dresses, and the tape measure around his neck swayed. He led us to a room lit by two candles on a small round table that was accessorised with an open bible, a potted plant and a bottle of Wray and Nephew rum. He opened the bottle, poured some in his mouth and spat it into the corners of the room. He stripped Rose and bathed her in a potion that smelled like it was made with scallion and garlic.

But even after all that, she was still able to determine the surname of a ram goat. She shared with me that my goat’s last name was Campbell and it did not belong on Brooks’ premises. So Rose hauled the goat from Macka Tree District, passed the football field, passed the narrow bridge and Maas Garfield’s shop to Burnt Ground to tie the goat under a lignum vitae tree in the Anglican churchyard.

She says, “never mind that I talk to trees, goats, dogs and breeze; God exists in all things living and dead.”

So even if she has full conversations with Maas Frank who died from ’91, nothing is wrong. Moses took instructions from a bush fire and nobody ever thought him mad. To this very day we try to live by the commandments that the breeze etched onto two dry stones for him. Parson preaches about it every Sunday morning. Rose believes that she is a prophetess.

Doctors said she has bipolar disorder, which to me is a fancy way of saying they didn’t know what is truly wrong with her. And just like when Danny would get up in the middle of the night sweating, trembling and breathing heavier than his trailer; they said it couldn’t be cured. Danny spoke to himself too, but if he saw someone approaching he would stop and start humming the tune of redemption song.

During Hurricane Ivan, Danny leaned a ladder against the house one night as if to keep it from blowing away. He was soaked, climbing and muttering with a concrete block in his hand. He wanted to use it to secure loosened zinc on the roof. But it wasn’t the breeze that blew him down, or the weight of the block overcoming him, it was his mind. For the last thing he said to me was, “why Jimmy let go the ladder?” But his brother Jimmy died when Danny was a boy.

I do my best to remind Rose to take her medication, they help her to sleep. But she is a fighter and sometimes not even sleep can hold her down. Sometimes she pretends to swallow the pills, hides them under her tongue then spits them out when she thinks I’m not looking. I’ve stopped trying to force her and we argue less these days. I asked my doctor for pills to help me sleep better but she suggests I use some ear plugs. I find them uncomfortable and so many mornings I get up still very languid; that sometimes I even find myself telling a tea cup good morning.


Topher Allen is a poet and fiction writer from Clarendon, Jamaica. His work explores sexuality, mental health and Jamaica’s cultural and historical experiences. He is an Obsidian Foundation Fellow whose work appears in Montreal Writes, Pree, Poetry London, Magma, Ambit and elsewhere. Allen won the Poet Laureate of Jamaica: Louise Bennett-Coverley Prize for Poetry in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Bocas Emerging Writers Fellowship and the BCLF Elizabeth Nunez Award for Writers in the Caribbean in 2022.

6 thoughts on ““Sister Rose” by Topher Allen

  1. The complexity of Jamaican culture. The influence of the church, obeah, the intermarriage of the dead and the living – a real masterpiece.
    Every one of us can identify a Rose in our village if not in our very own family but we won’t- culture again.

  2. I LOVE IT, humor, culture and the reality of life on full display. I appreciate your depth…i could visualize every detail.

    Keep up the great work!

  3. This short story really shed some light on some real issues. I particularly like the contrast made with life and death. Rose had reason enough to speak to opaque things. But what was more interesting to me was that the mother ended up with mental health issues too.
    Great writing as usual

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