Dada’s Rules

Mary Gould

Dada said Wellington Farm is a combination of miracle and the family’s survival. Visitors declared it a charming tropical oasis, with its lush green bamboo leaves swaying lazily in the breeze, orange trees laden like pregnant women, colorful mangoes rich, sweet, and meaty. Green and purple star apples white and creamy on the inside, cold and syrupy like melted ice cream. To Clover Franklin, the farm, like most of its kind in Jamaica, primitive and picturesque represented hard labor without pardon or privilege.

Clover and her two sisters, Rose and Petunia, had to work the field from a young age. That is what Dada demanded. But farming would not be an equal opportunity for them, working side by side did not entitle any of his daughters to an equal share in the profits. The girls were up at dawn to milk the cows, feed the pigs, herd the goats to greener pastures, plough the field, plant the seeds, and harvest the crops. Dada kept her sisters out of school the last two years to help recover from the ‘great drought of ’05.’ The Minister of Agriculture allowed the children of farmers to return to school after two years of helping to rebuild the agricultural infrastructure.

Only Clover had to return to school that year. Both Rose and Petunia were interested in marrying farmhands and Dada favored the matches. But Clover loved reading, mathematics, and science and had dreams of going to college. Dada was a handsome man in a weather-beaten way, but his surly disposition kept anyone from noticing and few tried getting to know him at six feet tall with broad shoulders and a body thick as a tree trunk. He talked constantly with his hands and when he became agitated, his hands flapped like tree branches in the wind.

In early summer, Mr. Knight, the high school principal, visited the farm. Dada sat under a tree with a tobacco pipe in his mouth, his machete beside him, while they talked. Clover hung clothes on the line within earshot of the conversation. Mr. Knight of medium built wore a light grey suit and blue tie. Dada didn’t trust men who wore suits, ‘cloaks of righteousness’ he called them. Mr. Knight came to offer his congratulations to Clover on passing the college entrance examination and to encourage Dada to allow her to go to college. “See, country folks can do better than farming.” Mr. Knight said.

“Did you come here to insult me?” Dada didn’t wait for a reply. “Farming is honest and decent work. Imagine a teeny-tiny seed— from the ground to the dinner table? Even God loves farming. For ye shall be like a tree planted by the waters.” Dada’s voice was oddly reverent. “Consider the lilies how they grow…” His voice trailed off and he shook himself and gave Mr. Knight a look that could curdle milk. “Don’t put any highfalutin’ ideas in Clover’s head- she got her a job here.”

“With Clover’s grades, she could be a doctor.” Mr. Knight said. “Saving lives and helping people. Now that’s noble.”

“Man, there’s no damn difference between a doctor and a farmer, you know, except all dat schooling. Doctors and farmers both save lives. Food sustains life.” Dada looked at Mr. Knight as if to say, ‘and you think I’m ignorant?’

Dada said, “In my 55 years, how many times did I need de Doctor? Not once— but food—well— 55 times 3 squares a day— times the days in a year.” Dada laughed and shook his head.

“Be fair to Clover. You chose your path, let her choose hers,” Mr. Knight said.

“Fair is for fairy tales” Dada shouted. “You think it’s fair that I got girls as farmhands when I need big strapping boys?”

“So, you punish her?” Mr. Knight asked. “Think about what you’re saying.”

“Get out a mi yard.” Dada took the machete and pointed at Mr. Knight’s chest. “Leave now, and I won’t carve you up with my machete and bury you farm hating ass.”

Mr. Knight ran. Dada followed him and wielded his machete menacingly every time the principal slowed his stride.

Dada ranted and railed against Mr. Knight almost every day following the incident. How dare that little toad tells him how to raise his daughters? So, Clover knew Dada would be more determined to prevent her from graduating high school.

Dada woke her a few days after Mr. Knight’s visit with his leather belt buckle. He poured ice water on her while she slept. Dada’s face was near hers; she saw on his face, hatred, pleasure, vengeance— a slide show of all three. Still groggy and disoriented from sleep, Clover thought she must be having a bad dream. The third or fourth crack of the belt buckle on her skin brought her wide awake. She got up, ran, screamed, and begged him to stop. He was deaf to her cries as he pursued her and shouted questions at her. “No, she didn’t invite Mr. Knight.” “Liar, Liar” he yelled, throwing the belt away, banging her head against the wall. I must tire him out, she thought.

She heard Petunia as if she was a long distance away. “She’s telling the truth.” Dada, please stop.” He ignored Petunia and continued to slap her, alternating between open hand and closed fists. She stumbled to the floor, he kicked, grabbed her hair. Rose was screaming now. “You promised you wouldn’t hit us no more.” Her sisters tried to hold him. He flung them off like flies. Clover ran around the room, faster, she told herself. She dodged his fists, kicks, his shoes, put her hands up to shield her face, running, running until she was dizzy. Years of beating taught her to devise strategies to protect herself from injuries as much as possible.

Dada’s last demand for the truth came out in gasping shallow breath and he leaned against the wall. “No, she didn’t know she passed the college pre-test. Yes, we wanted to go to Teacher’s college.” Anger spent, Dada retreated, his disgust evident. It matters not that she was truthful, what matters is that she paid for the discomfiture Mr. Knight had caused him. Rose and Petunia ran to her, hauled her to her feet, and hugged her, their cries blended with hers in outrage and sisterly love.

Still, Clover was glad the principal had come, but she wasn’t foolish enough to vocalize it. The principal’s news and encouragement opened a world of possibilities to her and a way out. Mr. Knight now had personal knowledge of the obstacles that she faced and that could only motivate him to help her. He had the reputation helping students realize their college dreams. He founded the only library in town. Dada was confident that she would never leave, but he didn’t know that she was determined to go to college, no matter how insurmountable the odds. It was now the driving need behind every action she took. Mr. Knight called, it “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”

***

Two days later, Dada selected Clover to do the haggling for the money all three sisters needed for shopping. He had selected her to negotiate for the shopping money because he was still angry at her. She could only take advantage of the scholarship if she completed the school year. Each sister of the three sisters farmed a plot of land. After the harvest, Dada would give each of them some money for school supplies and personal needs. The more meager the crop, the more the profits dwindled. Dada would subtract from the profits a percentage for himself for clearing the land and ploughing. He would subtract for fertilizer, seeds, use of the land, and whatever else he decided entitled him to a sizeable portion. This year wasn’t any different, except that Clover had a college goal, which was not a part of Dada’s calculations.

Clover read somewhere that talking to plants increased the number of crops-so she talked to her red peas, to her pigeon peas, to the sweet potatoes, to the corn, and to cabbages to get big healthy yields. Clover even sang and danced beneath the banana and mango trees. Soon, the trees bloated with fruit and hung almost to the ground. She had to put down stakes to keep the trees steady. The crops of peas, corn, and cabbages flourished beyond expectation, even Dada was impressed. ‘Farm witch” her sisters teased, but she responded good-naturedly, “Call me lucky Clover.” She could only hope Dada would be generous so they could buy a few scarves, new sun hats, and some personal items. She wanted to be ready for college.

***

It was the last Tuesday before school started, the girls dressed early to catch the North Star that usually arrived at exactly at 4:00 a.m. Clover would make their case for the shopping money. Those were the rules.

Clover and her sisters entered Dada’s room at 2:59 a.m. It was bare except for the bed, a kerosene lamp sat on a small rickety table and an old Encyclopedia propped up one of its legs. Dada’s clothes had been thrown on a chair on the left side of his bed where his head rested. The small transistor radio with a preacher’s voice warned of eternal hellfire and asked for fifty dollars to help spread God’s word. Dada was awake because he sucked his teeth and muttered. “The hell you say,” regarding the fifty-dollar donation.

“We’re ready, Dada.” Clover shook him at exactly 3:00 a.m. His snores got louder, rising and falling in crescendo. Dada did not respond. She had picked up a few of their established protocols over the years, but the rest of the one-sided rules had been enacted by Dada’s whims and moods. Clover shook him again; he did not answer but opened his eyes and stared at her.

It was now 3:15 a.m. and Clover’s anxiety levels were incalculable. She thought about the mile trek and wasn’t confident they would catch the bus, if they didn’t leave soon. The last time Rose had gone through the same motions of waking Dada, he had gotten up and started the negotiations at 3: 08 am. Now it was 3:20, and he showed no signs that he was inclined to make any concession for her.

She must get him up. He must not wait until the last minute to start the negotiation. She prayed and shook him again. She looked over at Rose and at Petunia, who both shrugged indifferently. They had no say in the game. It was her move.

“Dada, Dada,” Clover shouted. “It’s almost time to start out for the bus stop.” But his snores got louder.

3: 30 a.m., Dada turned languidly on his side and began to snore.

“Wake up Dada,” she shouted and turned up the volume on the radio. It was now 3:34 a.m.

Dada rose lazily and stretched, putting his arms over his head and yawning. He closed his eyes and yawned again.

“Why didn’t you wake me up Clover?” He asked innocently. She wanted to scream you have been awake all this time but said nothing.

“Give me de thread bag.” Dada ordered. He pointed to the chair and she reached in his pants’ pockets and pulled out a small stuffed bag with a fifty- dollar bill peeping from the top. She gave it to him. Dada’s thread bag was a long narrow bag that fit inside his pockets, a makeshift farmer’s wallet, originally white but now brown from sweat and dirt. The top of it was held together with an elastic drawstring tied in several knots for security. This was Dada’s banking system: steal from it and they were homeless.

It was now 3: 37 a.m. Twenty- three minutes left to make the bus and a long way to run to catch it.

Dada made a show of having difficulty untying the thread bag’s many knots. He would untie a knot and collapse on the bed from exertion. Clover watched him and wondered what he’d do if she ripped it from his hands and made a run for it? Easy girl, she told herself, breathe, he wants you to get angry so he can call the trip off. This was his ritual. His ritual wasn’t to be deviated from, and all improvisations belonged to him.

The soft swish of the elastic opening of the thread bag alerted Clover and she glanced at the clock 3: 41. Dada pulled out several bills. His smiling face lighted by the kerosene lamp, suggested he enjoyed her discomfiture. He counted and recounted the money and separated the money into three stashes on the bed- another of his little rituals.

Petunia had found out the hard way that you never ask for the exact amount needed for purchases or you could end up with 25% or less of what you needed. Make eye-contact, but don’t flinch or make a face or act impatient or give-any negative body language during the process because it could result in no money and Dada’s order for the victim, the negotiator, to pick the biggest switch for him to beat her with.

Dada finally turned to Clover and asked. “How much is it?”

“A thousand dollars.” Clover said and looked him in the eye.

“Nine hundred,” was Dada’s counteroffer.

Clover didn’t answer; never counter with an amount, that was Dada’s prerogative. She continued to make the case, so that he wouldn’t go too low. “We need blue gabardine material for the uniforms, blouses, wedding dresses, we ….”

“Ah yes-, the wedding dresses, eight hundred dollars.” Dada said.

“We need shoes too.”

“Seven hundred.”

“Soap, lotion, socks, brassieres, panties, sanitary napkins….”

“Six hundred dollars, that’s final girls.” He turned from Clover to separate out six hundred dollars from the rest of the money.

It was 3: 44 a.m.

Clover reached for the bills and he held on to them. “Thanks Dada.” Those weren’t the words he wanted to hear. Clover didn’t rush, any bit of straying from the indecipherable script and the trip could be forfeited. She could hear the bus blowing its horn in the distance. It sounded about a mile away. Her palms were clammy. Dada gazed steadily at her, waiting, waiting, with the look and patience of man who had no need to hurry and no sympathy for those who had to rush. His smile widened when he heard the horn again. Son of a Bitch, she thought. Dada held on to the money, his eyes shuttered as if he had gone back to sleep. He was giving her a chance to declare defeat, and to let one of her sisters try again next week. No, no, I’m not giving up, she told herself. Then inspiration struck.

“What should we get you at the market Dada?” She asked.

He released the bills and smiled. “Cutting it a little close, eh Clover.” He closed his eyes again, as if thinking hard. The bus horn sounded the alarm: 3: 50

“Dada please.”

“Bring me a pair of size twelve sneakers.”

“No problem.” She said. The money wasn’t enough for their purchases, but rules were rules and done means done.

The bus blew its horn again and it sounded like a bull horn in the quiet of the bedroom. It was 3: 51. They needed to hurry. “Get me some white ones,” Dada said as they left the room. It took every ounce of discipline to exit the house gracefully-another rule. They ran like demons of hell chased them. They stumbled and fell so many times they lost count. Each time they gained momentum and distance, the dewy grass, slippery beneath their shoes delayed them from advancing in a weird slippery-sliding, motion dance. Clover was in the lead. Petunia shouted to her: “Go catch the bus, and let the driver know we’re coming.”

Clover believed that her sprinter ancestors lent her footspeed as she ran towards the road, the bus horn catapulting her like bullets whisking by. She reached the bus stop as the bus rounded the corner. She held out her hand to flag it down, her breathing ragged. North Star’s brake lights illuminated the darkness as it rattled to a stop. Its loud engine and exhaust fumes filled the air.

On top of the bus was a rack with coarse farm bags filled with produce. Clover was so happy that she was oblivious to the leaves and her spider-webbed hair or of the white and yellow Spanish needle flowers that splattered and clung to her blue jeans and pink shirt. She picked a snail off her mid-section and two baby grasshoppers too. She didn’t see or feel her shirt open or any other critters. She only felt the adrenalin from that morning combined with the sweet triumphant relief that the shopping trip was on schedule. The euphoric victory of catching the bus was mirrored on her face and she reveled in it. She’d caught the bus. Cherry leaves and sweet peas, she caught the bus. She hadn’t let her sisters down. Her sisters were running towards her and she remembered her promise. She stepped up onto the bus and spoke to the driver.

“Two of my sisters are coming driver, please wait?”

“Sure, I’m two minutes early.”

The driver looked her over and laughed. The people sitting directly behind him joined in too, as she walked to an empty seat.

“Nice outfit, nature just loves you.”

“What’s the joke?” Clover asked and looked at the driver and the passengers. They laughed louder. Clover shrugged. Nothing was going to spoil her day. But laughter followed her anyway.

The bus driver called back to her. “Can you do me a favor?”

“Sure” she said.

“Tell your green passenger I’m only carry paying customers.”

A green lizard looked up at Clover from her cleavage, its red tongue hung blissfully out.

Mary Gould has been published in the Sand Hill Review. She attended the Miami Writers Institute and received her MA in Creative Writing from St. Leo University. Originally from a small obscure village in Jamaica, as a child Mary lived for the monthly Bookmobile visits. She now lives with her husband and three children in Miami, Florida, and works full time as a Court Records Supervisor.