Gemmah épi Phillip move-y! Carol have five lil chilren to look aftuh. She doh have no man. With all duh hard work she does do, she get a lil money to build a house. You know how long she livin’ wif Therese. An’ you know dat house doh have space. So she was rell excited to build her own house.
Buh you know wah happen? As she finish build duh foundation, land registry an’ police come an’ tell her she cah build deir so. She have to buy duh land if she want house. Wheh you fink she gettin money to buy land? Eh Kevbot? She belly have money to feed her chil’ren. An’ you know what wors’? All duh money she use to buy cement, sand, steel and ready mix is dong duh drain it goin’. Kevbot I tell you duh foundation finish but she have to stop. She cah build no house. Everyfing jus’ stop brap!
Dem people doh have no heart! Dey doh have no kind of conscience. If it was me, I would say awright, she staht aready so I will let her finish. But nofing like dat happenin’ wif dem people. Carol stick at Therese little house an’ she spen’ all dat money for nofing. You doh see dem people evil Kevbot? Ah Bondyé! Sé moun sala méwité mò!
Cuthbert had no plans for the afternoon. He had just finished cutting some grass for Mr Afee and he was sitting in the front of his grandmother’s house sharpening his cutlass. He often used his weed eater to cut grass but he had run out of gas and had to use the old fashioned method. As a result of using the cutlass, it had become dull. This was what happened to a blade when it made contact with hard objects as well as the fleshy stems of obstinate weeds.
Using the cutlass had made him exert more energy so he was leisurely filing the blade as he listened to his grandmother tell a story that she had already told him. She was often redundant when she was distressed and at the moment, it was Carol’s situation that weighed on her. Whilst she talked, he took random sips from a coconut he had picked on his way from Mr Afee’s place. The water was refreshing, especially since the air was dry and there was barely any wind.
As he sharpened his cutlass, his sweat dripped onto the blade and slowly trickled onto the ground. His shirt was stuck to him. He was drenched. It felt like the more he sipped his coconut water, the more his pores bled. But he concentrated on his task and his grandmother’s voice. And as she talked, his sharpening became more vigorous.
After he had finished, he attached the sickle to his side and went to visit his cousin Carol at his Aunt Therese. He found her sitting behind the small shed of a house with a sizeable basin cemented between her thighs. Her children were bare footed and running all around. Cuthbert surprised one of them by picking him up. The child laughed gleefully and smiled broadly at the sight of him.
Cuthbert, with his cutlass still fastened to his side, climbed a nearby breadfruit tree and picked the ripest. Then he cut down some bananas and gave Carol some fish that he had caught the previous night. He knew she did not have much. This was his contribution to her struggle. And since he was free for the rest of the afternoon, while she washed, cooked and performed other tasks, he attended to her children.
It was late afternoon and he was at home with his wife. Since their four children moved out in pursuit of their own lives, it had just been the two of them. Phillip and Gemma Arnold kept to themselves as most people in the neighbourhood despised them. Not because they were unkind people but because they were emphatic about possession.
Maybe this way of being was inculcated within them because they spent so much of their lives in America. Nonetheless, Phillip and Gemma were aware that the entire community was built on land that belonged to them. In fact, the very street was named after Phillips’ father.
This fact never fazed the community that kept on growing and building houses. They identified the land as communal space. When Phillip was a child, people would come over to his house and ask his father whether they could acquire a piece of his vast land. Gregory Arnold was a generous man. He gave land to the entire community without asking for a penny. Perhaps the bareness of the land created a void in him and people’s occupation of it filled his own emptiness. Either way, he freely gave off land until his dying day.
However, when Phillip inherited the land, which was mostly occupied, he stopped giving it away. He had no need to fill a void. He told the community that they did not need to vacate the space that they had acquired from his father but he was no longer allowing other people to build houses for free. He filed an injunction to prohibit possible squatting of the land. So children who wanted to build next to their parents had to purchase land. And those who disrespected Phillips’ wishes and began to build on the land without his permission were made to stop building unless they bought the land.
Phillip also provided the community the option of adverse possession; in that if they had been on the land for ten or more years, it was possible for them to purchase a portion of the land from him. Unfortunately, none of his neighbours were able to afford it. This caused significant tension in the community; specifically since many people did not think that Phillip would take matters as far as calling the authorities on them or their children or grandchildren. It was a frustrating situation. In fact, quarrels ensued and it got to the point where everyone in the community stopped speaking to Phillip and Gemma.
Though he had land papers that signified his ownership of the land, Phillip had been somewhat exiled from the rest of the community. Children no longer greeted him and adults crossed to the opposite side of the street when he went for walks, in order to distance themselves from him. Many began to perceive him and his wife as evil. He and Gemma no longer had friends in the neighbourhood and the community’s desire to absolutely and perpetually sequester them caused a great deal of unhappiness.
It was a way of life to which they had to adjust. Though they enjoyed their privacy, they had not minded the odd visits or the meetings in the street. Phillip especially missed the domino games that had become more of an urge now that he had been made an outsider on his own land. But they learned to adapt and to keep each other company during the silences and feelings of loneliness.
It was not out of malice that Phillip and Gemma decided, in effect, to reclaim ownership of the land that was always theirs. Phillip realised that he and his wife were aging and he simply wanted to leave something behind for his children and grandchildren. He thought about it hard and long and it was a difficult choice to make. But everyone was so eager to build on the land. There was barely any room left. He needed to leave some of this space for his children who had gone to England and America but who may very well decide that they wanted to raise a family in the space, surrounded by birds, rivers, trees, sea, ocean and the feeling of community.
He did not want to deny his children of the feeling he had had as a child; that everyone was family, and that although blood relations mattered, it was not everything. He lived in America for many years but he always knew he had to return home to his land. This was the place he explored as a little boy, climbed fruit trees and run around with boys who were not related to him, but were his brothers in every way. He wanted his grandchildren to know this; to play dominoes with friends and to share space and life with people.
He knew that after living in the U.S., he had become less sociable. He had begun to appreciate privacy over all else. But he still possessed the nostalgia. And although he did not immerse himself in the community when he returned, he still felt the connection to the people. Although many of his friends had said that America had made him standoffish, he returned because he wanted to re-join the collective.
America had been lonely. He and Gemma lived in an apartment in the Bronx and when they were not working, their tired bodies were encased in that minuscule sarcophagus of a home. The irony was, they had a real home; a beautiful house on their land on the island. But they felt that the US was a better option for their children. They expected to make more money and give their children more opportunities. They were able to send all of them to University but not without some cost to their own wellbeing. Phillip had three jobs and so did Gemma. They worked hard and barely made any friends during the fifteen years they lived in New York.
Though they had become somewhat institutionalised, they returned home. They had gotten used to the loneliness of New York so they stayed at home more than usual. However, they did make some effort to visit and engage with old friends, but never to the community’s satisfaction. They had become separate from the collective and it was difficult to reintegrate. So when Phillip and Gemma flung their land papers in their faces, the members of the community felt gutted. But they were not surprised because these people were no longer a part of them.
So late afternoon, with the community’s silence reverberating against the stillness of the day, a masked man, wielding a freshly sharpened cutlass, breezed through Gemma and Phillip’s open window and minced flesh and bones.
“Irene, you not heahin’ dat? I swear I heahin’ somebody screamin’.”
“Choops. Is pig Matthew killin’ up duh road.”
“Nah man. Dat not pig! I fink is by Phillip an’ Gemmah.”
“Phillip? Gemmah? Choops.”
“Garcon Irene, I tellin’ you people screamin’.”
“Well, dats not my business. Put on the radio!”
“Mam! Mam! Mam!”
“Ti moun, ki sa?”
“People screamin’ by Phillip an’ Gemmah!”
“Uh? Phillip èvèk Gemmah?”
“Yes mam! Come outside an’ heah!”
“Kité! Kité mwen bat mizè mwen! Bon!”
“Mam, but I tellin’ you dey screamin’. Heah it! You heahin’ it?”
“Ich mwen, délè sa ou jwenn, ou ni pou tjenbé!”
Screaming and howling.
“But Mam, you not heahin’ dat?”
“Chile, go in your room an’ read a book.”
Even much louder screaming.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound . . .”
A car was driving up Gregory Street. The driver was not from these parts. He was not familiar with the community but he felt its silence. He saw the emptiness of the street and the lack of children. He was so entirely focused on the absence of life and the stillness of things that the sudden shrieks that ruptured the weighty quiet impacted him with significant force.
He felt the agonising screams perforate his skin and vibrate against his bones. He suffered a certain trauma; a sudden shock at the brutal sounds of death and he could not continue on his way. He stopped the car abruptly and in the middle of the street. He hopped out of the vehicle and stood with the stillness of the place. There was no sound. He almost thought he had imagined it until he heard and felt it again, the high-pitched soprano of the dying; this time, the song was unending and it propelled him. He looked around frantically, searching for someone, anyone. And though he could feel, as he wandered the street, that he was not alone, that eyes were focused on him, he saw no movement. He saw no life.
The soaring sounds of suffering grew even louder and this time, they shoved him forward until he found from where they were coming. He pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket, dialled the police and the ambulance while attempting to open the front door of Phillip’s and Gemma’s house. The door was screwed shut and no matter what he did, it would not budge. He yelled for help but his shouts were seemingly unheard.
It was the sounds of sirens that calmed him. The ambulance arrived in record time and this was the sound that brought the community members out. He stood there as they each emerged from their now open doors. They did not leave their doorsteps but they stood as spectators, waiting for what would unfold.
When the police finally broke through the door, the paramedics carried two ostensibly lifeless bodies out of the house. From their verandas, they saw the first hacked and bloodied body of Phillip Arnold; then a similarly scythed figure belonging to Gemma. As they watched, there was not a spilt tear or a moment of sadness. They turned their backs and returned to their lives. And when the police walked around to question Phillip and Gemma’s closest neighbours, nobody had heard or seen anything.
Malica S. Willie is a Saint Lucian writer and researcher who presently holds a Visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Institute for Black Atlantic Research (IBAR) at the University of Central Lancashire. Her poetry and prose can be found in Poui, Interviewing the Caribbean, and The Caribbean Writer.