S H O R T S T O R Y
b y j a c q u e l i n e b i s h o p ~ n e w y o r k, n e w y o r k
AS IF by magic it appeared there: the small wooden house with shuttered jalousie windows, rising out against the dark green bushes. Emmanuel was sure it hadn’t been there Friday evening as he made his way home from the fields for the weekend, and he was confused as to how an entire house could have been built in a matter of days. Even more confusing was the garden with its purple Joseph-coats and giant red-ginger lilies; the clump of banana trees at the side. In the back, a huge Julie mango tree spread its gnarled branches over the roof.
Pale curtains blew at the windows and he was able to make out the sounds of someone moving things about inside, rearranging furniture and carefully setting things in order. There was a happy feeling to the place and it seemed as if the sun shone directly down on the house, casting a soft yellow glow over the yard. Emmanuel was still looking at the house in astonishment when the back door opened and someone stepped outside.
Quickly he hid behind a large breadfruit tree, peering out every now and again to see who was coming out of the house.
Immediately he felt foolish for hiding. Hadn’t he walked the footpath of these bushes on the way to his fields for the past however many years? Hadn’t he bragged to the other men in the district this was the best land around for miles, the reason why his bananas were always so full and handsome and green? His cocoa and coffee beans so fragrant and rich? In some ways he felt he owned the land, for there would be weeks at a time when he’d be the only person to come this far into the bushes.
A woman stepped out of the house balancing something emerald-green on her shoulder. Emmanuel passed his hands quickly over his eyes to make sure he was not seeing things and looked again to what was on the woman’s shoulder. It was a parrot! A yellow-billed parrot!
The woman carried the bird in such a way as if it was the most natural thing in the world for it to be resting there on her shoulder, nudging her, playing in her long dark hair.
Emmanuel studied the woman carefully, how the long loose cotton dress she wore did not do much to hide her splendid figure. His eyes moved from her tiny waist, to the full bottom, down to the curve of her legs and the ankles and feet resting solidly on the ground. Her hair was one long thick plait down her back. She had the most beautiful complexion he’d ever seen. Like a jewel, he thought, staring at her, something rich and dark, something you could spend the rest of your life looking at.
The woman slipped back inside the house and came out again, this time dragging a large white pail like the ones the women in the district washed their clothes in.
He kept watching her. Why would she live so far away from everyone else, he asked himself? Most of the other homes in the district were set back from the one badly paved road over which hardly any cars ran anymore. When had she moved into the district and onto “his” land? How come no one told him about, or talked of this woman?
The woman began pinning clothes on the line, humming to herself. Something about her appealed to him, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Perhaps it was her quick lithe movements. Or perhaps it was the thick black hair like a rope down her back. Indian hair. Hair like his wife had when they first got together. That was many years ago and Urmilla did not have hair like that anymore. Now her hair had thinned and she no longer took the time with it and just rolled it into a coil on the top of her head. Urmilla had changed so much, Emmanuel thought miserably. Now she’d gained too much weight and her disappointments in life, chief among them her inability to conceive a child, hung off her like its own weight.
Friday night after returning home from the field he watched as Urmilla squatted over the wood fire, blowing it back to a blaze, to warm his dinner. How big her backside had gotten, he thought to himself, and how heavily veined her legs. When she looked over at him he immediately noticed the creases around her eyes, and how blood-shot and tired they looked. No, she was no longer the woman he married so many years before. She was no longer like the woman in front of him.
Emmanuel refocused his attentions on the woman in the yard. She was obviously alone in the house. She kept humming to herself, reaching into the pail, pulling out clothes and hanging them on the line.
He decided to come from behind the tree and talk to her.
Removing his worn brown felt hat and holding it in his hands, Emmanuel approached the fence.
“Good morning, Ma’am,” he said to her and the woman stiffened, but she did not answer him and she did not turn around.
“I hope I didn’t frighten you much, Miss,” he continued, “but I sure was surprised to see a house in these parts. To see you in these parts.”
Still there was no answer.
“I works abouts here,” Emmanuel continued talking to the trembling back of the woman, “have worked abouts here all my life, and I’ve never seen your place before.” He stopped, waiting for her to answer, or at least to turn around and acknowledge him in some way.
“Well, most folks around here known me as Manuel, Mani for short. I live over there,” he said, pointing in the direction where he was coming from. “But I have my fields over there.” He said, pointing deeper into the bushes.
He stopped talking, waiting for her to say something.
“It sure is a nice little place you have here,” he continued after a while, “even though I’m not sure how you got it all up so fast. How did you get it up so fast?” he asked.
Emmanuel began to shift uncomfortably when the woman still did not answer. He was close enough to see she was trembling slightly, to smell the bleach in the pail of white clothes she was washing, to see the tiny blue spots in the white shorts she’d hung on the line. Beads of sweat started collecting at the roots of her hair, running down her neck and shoulders, making small rivulets into her back.
He made to get closer to her, but the parrot began squawking loudly in alarm, rapidly flapping its wings, doing anything, it seemed to Emmanuel, to stave off this unwelcome visitor.
Emmanuel took a few rapid steps backwards, looking around for his machete. Were his eyes deceiving him? The bird actually seemed to be threatening him, getting bigger and bigger!
“I wish you would say something Miss,” he said, a touch of anxiety creeping into his voice. He was getting ready to make a speedy retreat. Why wouldn’t the woman answer him?
“Perhaps you don’t know this,” he continued to the back of the woman, getting angrier and angrier by the minute, “but around here everyone speaks to everyone else. The very least you can do is respond to a greeting!” Still there was no answer.
The sun started climbing overhead and Emmanuel decided he should be on the way to his field if he wanted to get any work done for the day. He turned around, collected his machete and reached for the lunch Urmilla had carefully prepared for him. Emmanuel walked away from the house, shaking his head in disbelief at the bad manners of some people.
All day long as he worked, the woman was all Emmanuel could think about. As he dug into the soft, moist earth planting new banana suckers, and later, as he reached up, fingering his coffee beans to see how ripe they were, he wrestled with the image of the woman, the house and the bird. There had been no talk of another person moving into the district and this was a place where everyone knew everyone else. The entire district was enclosed by dark-blue mountains and so shielded it seemed the outside world had forgotten about the place. Even the district’s name, Nonsuch, added to its obscurity.
“You know how we come by that name?” His friend Robinson asked him one Friday night as they sat playing dominoes. They were both slightly drunk, although Robinson was more far-gone than he was. “We were really None-such you know. None-such place on the map of the island,” Robinson added, laughing hard at his own joke. “None-such, None-such, Nonsuch place.”
This actually made sense to Emmanuel, especially since the district was never more isolated. Tourists no longer passed in vans on Mondays and Wednesdays, throwing coins at the children who waved hibiscus flowers at them. The big blue bus no longer carried passengers to the Bay where the stores were. (The roads were too bad and the bus driver got tired of having to repair his bus.) Of the two vans which still made the journey through the district, one of them always ended up with a busted pipe or tire because of the road. So how indeed had the woman moved there? The question obsessed him.
As he settled under the cocoa tree where he ate his lunch, and took out the food his wife had prepared, he continued trying to piece together how it all happened. Sometime between Friday evening and early Monday morning the house was erected. It wasn’t a fancy structure, so perhaps. . . but more puzzling were the flowers and the mango tree, because those you could not grow overnight.
He took the blanket he used for his afternoon nap down from the cocoa tree, shook it out, and laid it out under the tree. Before long he felt drowsy, and though he wasn’t quite awake, he wasn’t asleep either when he began to see the parrot with the fantastic green plumage. It was a yellow-billed parrot, a species found only in Jamaica. A few months before, some government officials came and talked to the people in the district, explaining to them that the bird was threatened with extinction and it was now illegal to hunt the bird. Periodic checks would be carried out, they said, and anyone found hunting the birds, even if they were tourists, would face stiff penalties. If tourists couldn’t hunt the birds, and everyone knew how the government bent over backwards to please the tourists, then this was serious.
After they left, he and Robinson laughed at it all. Imagine being told not to hunt the birds in one’s own back yard! What were the government people going to tell them not to do next? Why didn’t they come and fix the roads instead of worrying themselves over some measly birds?
Emmanuel was very fond of that bird in particular. He took pleasure in the fantastic green plumage of the bird’s lower body, the royal-blue feathers under its wings. In his mind’s eye he carried a picture of the bird’s hooked yellow bill, paler at the tips; its hazel eyes, the rose-pink edged in gray at the bird’s throat and neck. Such a beautiful, beautiful, bird he thought.
He always loved beautiful things. When Emmanuel was younger, he kept a yellow-billed parrot in a cage on his verandah. He liked having the bird, rare even then, to show off to his friends. He taught the parrot all sorts of new and wonderful tricks: how to talk to him and only him; what hurtful things to say about his friends; how to scream his name, and only his name, if someone troubled it. He kept the bird like that for years, letting it out every now and again to stretch its wings. He had, in fact, clipped the bird’s wings so it could not fly too far out of his reach. One day however, after letting the bird out, it did fly out of his reach. The bird circled the house twice, before heading to the hills from which he’d taken it. For three days he saw nothing of the bird, but many others did. Some said they saw the bird looking for its lost flock; others reported its lonesome cry, to which there was no answer. Some even talked about the sadness surrounding the bird like a dark blue cloak. On the third day, after again searching the woods frantically for the bird, he eventually found it, tired and worn out and fluttering on the ground. He took the parrot home and tended it assiduously, but to no use. The parrot never recovered and died shortly after being taken back home.
Urmilla’s body seemed heavier than usual to Emmanuel that night, and eventually he gave up the idea of lifting her legs over his. Instead, he kept thinking of the woman in the bushes. How young and slender she was. When he first met Urmilla she’d been that slender—a shy, slender schoolgirl he would watch as she made her way home from school in the afternoons. He liked the fact she did not have many friends, she was so soft-spoken and she always walked home alone.
What he especially liked about Urmilla were the times she dressed up in the colorful, silky cloth she wrapped tightly around her body. Saris, that was what her type of clothes were called. Emmanuel remembered the times he would steal onto her father’s property at night just to get a glimpse of Urmilla in her saris. He especially liked to watch as she got ready for one of the Indian ceremonies she and her father went to once a month in Kingston. After painting a dark red spot between her eyes, she would put a pasty yellow base on her face, gold bangles around her ankles and her arms, earrings in her ears and nose, then slip intricately embroidered slippers onto her feet.
She lived then with her father in the largest house in the district. Rumor had it her mother had died on her way to Jamaica from India when Urmilla was still a child. The father never remarried, never had any other children, and Urmilla was forced to grow up alone. The father, it was further rumored, forbade Urmilla to be friends with anyone in the district, insisting they would be going back home soon—“home” being some far-off place covered in a curry-yellow haze.
From the first moment he’d seen her, a young woman in one of her saris, Emmanuel was intrigued and he made up his mind that somehow and by some means he would get her. She would become the replacement for the bird he’d lost.
His opportunity came faster than he could have imagined. One Saturday, on one of their visits to Kingston, Urmilla’s father complained of a tightness in his chest. He was just able to pull to the side of the road before he slumped over in his car and died of a heart attack.
Emmanuel sprung into action immediately. He dropped the woman he’d been living with for years, earning the lifetime wrath of her and all her relatives and, with the entire district looking on in astonishment, arranged a proper church wedding, taking the grief-stricken and confused Urmilla as his wife.
The next morning, on his way to the fields, Emmanuel had great difficulty finding the house. He was sure it wasn’t too far from the breadfruit tree, yet he could not find it. He kept pacing back and forth from the breadfruit tree to where he was certain the house was yesterday, there close to the orange flamboyant tree. It was not there.
For the longest time he wandered in a circle, trying to locate the house. Perhaps he’d imagined it all, he said to himself after a while. Perhaps there had been no house, no woman, no yellow-billed parrot. He was just beginning to believe this when he saw the house farther along the path, tangled and almost hidden in the bushes. He noticed immediately that the vines had thickened into the fence, and that the bushes were denser, greener. The vines should not have fattened like that overnight; he read it as a sign that he should stay away from the house and its occupant.
Emmanuel could not stop himself. He had to see her again, the woman with the parrot.
He struggled with the vines until he finally forced an opening. It was then that he saw her again, the dark-haired woman, squatting in the yard, tending to the flowers in her garden. Her back was to him, as before, and he watched as she worked slowly, assiduously, humming a song he knew, but with words he could not remember. The bird was there, too, hovering around, flying low and coming close to the woman before flying away again. It seemed to Emmanuel that the bird was not a parrot at all, but some untamed aspect of the woman. Both were so spectacularly beautiful.
For a moment, as if she knew someone was watching her, the woman turned slightly in the direction where Emmanuel was kneeling. And while he could not make out her entire face, he saw the outline of her eyes, her nose, her full dark lips. She was perfect, just perfect, Emmanuel said to himself, struggling to his feet. He would keep that picture in his mind all day as he worked in the field.
From the beginning, Urmilla was a quiet, hard working woman who never asked much of Emmanuel. In the evenings, when he came home from the fields, his meals would be warm and waiting for him. He complimented himself on how wise he had been to get rid of Mavis, that Jezebel of a woman, always demanding that he help with chores around the yard. She would always demand that Emmanual "do something!" Urmilla, thank God, made no such demands. She fetched the wood for herself, cooked the meals, planted all the thyme, escellion and tomatoes she needed to season the meat with. The first two years of his marriage he remembered as blissful, and the only time he ever left the yard was to, reluctantly, go to the field. It got so bad that Robinson started teasing him that he never saw him anymore.
“Can’t you give that poor woman a break?” Robinson would say whenever they ran into each other at the one rum-bar in the district. “Do you think you could find a little time to come play dominoes one Friday night like you use to do? Even I give Daisy a little break now and again!”
“You just don’t understand,” Emmanuel would say, smiling that knowing smile of his, “you just don’t understand.”
“Oh I understand alright!” Robinson would reply, laughing, “I understand only too well. I guess we should be expecting two new feet any day now?”
“Yes, any day now!” Emmanuel would brag.
He could hardly wait for Urmilla to have a child. To have his child. Already he could see this child, who would not look like any other child in the district, Urmilla’s Indian blood running through its body. Every month he watched for signs that Urmilla was carrying his baby.
But every month no such signs came, and after a while he became a little anxious.
“Milla,” he said, coming close to her one night in bed, calling her by the name he’d given her, trying his best to keep the anxiety out of his voice. “How long we been married now?”
Urmilla smiled without answering, for they both knew the answer to that question. In a few weeks they would have been married three years.
“Yes,” Emmanuel said, laying his head on her lap, “three years.”
She was wearing the sheer-pink night gown he’d bought her, the one that allowed him to see the brown nipples of her breasts. He reached up and started tugging at one of her nipples through the material, but she squirmed and pulled away.
Emmanuel got serious again. “Don’t you think it should have happened already?” he asked, using his chin to point to her stomach. “Don’t you think by now we should have had a baby?”
A sadness came over Urmilla, and her body sagged. Doubt and confusion clouded her eyes. She looked at him but said nothing.
“Well, let's try again,” he said, pulling her down on top of him, trying to lighten the mood, trying to stave off both their worry. “If not this month, then next month!” he whispered in her ear.
But it did not happen that month. Or the month after that. Or the month after that. In fact, it would never happen. None of the doctors, bush-doctors or herbalists they went to could ever tell them why.
When, after several years, it became clear it would never happen, Emmanuel pulled away from Urmilla and every year became more resentful. Especially when Mavis had a whole brood of children and grandchildren running all over her yard, and Robinson had what he took to telling everyone was his own cricket team. With each passing year Emmanuel found more and more reasons to blame Urmilla for why she’d never gotten pregnant: perhaps, he would wonder aloud, those spices Urmilla kept pounding in a mortar had something to do with why she hadn’t conceived. Spices she’d taken wrapped up inside of herself all the way from India. Perhaps she was doing something to herself, putting something into herself... all those leaves some of the women in district used to bring on their monthly menses.
But the truth of the matter was that he doubted this. Every time he watched her eyes travel feverishly over a swollen woman’s body, or how eagerly she would reach for a newborn baby, he doubted it. Emmanuel was forced to conclude that, after fifteen years, the woman he knew, the woman he’d lived with all those years, would never do anything to harm an unborn baby.
That evening, on his way home from the field, Emmanuel stopped by to see his friend Robinson, to feel him out, to see if he knew anything about the woman who now had her house in the bushes.
“Round robin?” Robinson asked, after they settled down to a game of dominoes.
“Naw, Naw,” Emmanuel said, waving the idea away. “I don’t want to play dominoes tonight.”
Robinson lit a cigarette and looked at his friend, who seemed to be thinking hard about something.
“Urmilla all right?” he broached the subject tentatively.
“Yes, yes,” Emmanuel again waved him off impatiently, “getting fatter and fatter everyday.”
“She must be one contented woman,” Robinson remarked, blowing white circles into the air. “It take a level of contentment for a woman to get fat, you know.”
“She too big though!” Emmanuel mumbled under his breath.
“There you go again,” Robinson said, “giving the woman grief! I want you to know that you the only man round these parts that feels that way.”
“I the only man round these parts who know anything good!” Emmanuel replied, impatient and miserable.
“In your mind, Mani,” Robinson said, “it’s all in your mind. Urmilla is a good woman, a honest and decent woman. Nothing at all wrong with that woman!”
“Yeah, nothing,” Robinson looked closely at his friend. “ In any case, what bothering you, Mani? What you have on your mind tonight?”
Emmanuel leaned back in his chair, unsure how to begin. He looked at his friend for a long time, trying to gauge exactly what he should tell him, how he should begin. “You hear any talk of anybody new moving into the district?” he asked, not quite meeting his friend’s eyes.
“Well,” Robinson leaned over and put out his cigarette, “one of Mavis’ granddaughter is home with her a bit …”
Emmanuel shook his head. “No, no, not like that, somebody totally new … a woman.” He knew Robinson was looking at him with questions in his eyes, but Emmanuel kept his face averted, playing with something at his feet.
“No, I don’t hear of any such thing.” Robinson answered flatly. “Why you asking?”
“Oh nothing, nothing.” Emmanuel answered, staring at whatever was at his feet.
“Oh nothing, my backside!” Robinson roared, “You and I, we have known each other forever, so don’t come telling me this 'oh nothing' foolishness!”
“There is a woman, Robinson,” Emmanuel finally confided, “living near my field …”
“Living near your field, Mani?” Robinson asked, incredulous. “All the way over in those bushes?”
“Yes, all the way over in those bushes!” Emmanuel snapped. Some of the men made fun of how far in the bushes he had his field. Said he’d bought his land so far out because he was too cheap to buy land nearer the road. Yes, he knew what people were saying about him behind his back.
“Well then, no,” Robinson answered, “I hear no talk about some woman living near your place in the bushes!”
If only Robinson had seen her, Emmanuel kept saying to himself as he walked home alone. If only he had seen her.
After a week of spying, Emmanuel decided he was going to talk to the woman whether she liked it or not. It was downright disrespectful of her not to talk to the person who passed by her house on the way to his field everyday. He did not care if she set the parrot on him, even if he had to fight the parrot off with his two bare hands. Today, of all the days, he was going to talk to her.
Again, when he got to the breadfruit tree, he could not find the house, but by now he was familiar with the games of the woman, the fact that she loved to have him looking for her, searching for her. Yes, he said to himself, standing in the clearing and looking around, the house had to be somewhere around here, in the dense green bushes. He took a deep breath, squinted his eyes the better to see, and began looking.
He searched and searched for hours on end, retracing his steps from the road to the breadfruit tree dozens of times. Measuring the distance between the breadfruit and flamboyant trees and the place where the woman’s house should be. He did this time and time again, but no matter what he did, however many times he measured and thought and tried, he could not find the house. Eventually, late in the afternoon, he found a path he believed led to the house and eagerly followed it. The path led him to a spot where there were only feathers: emerald green and royal blue feathers. Nothing else. Not the tiny wooden shack, not the purple Joseph-coats and bright red-ginger lilies. Not even the big Julie mango tree was to be found. As easily as the house, the woman and the bird had sprung up, they had all disappeared.
Emmanuel sat down heavily on the ground. He felt defeated. For a long time, he thought about Urmilla and all she’d done for him, all she’d put up with over the years. He thought about how everyday she carefully prepared his meals, took care of his clothes, did everything she could to make him comfortable. He thought about how she’d even put up with him, even after she knew he’d long fallen out of love with her. Yes, he was forced to admit, yes, she’d never stopped loving him. Mornings she rose early just to make his breakfast, leaving her warm indentation to keep him company in the bed, as she made the hot chocolate, or the homemade coffee tea she knew he loved. Yes, he was forced to admit, she had been a good woman. So many things Urmilla had done for him.
Getting up and heading home, Emmanuel decided he would show Urmilla just how much she meant to him. How much, he was beginning to realize, she’d always meant to him. He could not believe the silly things that had bothered him about her over the years. He was glad he was still young enough, still had some life left in his body, to thank her for being there; to thank her for all she had done for him.
As soon as he walked into the yard, he knew something was wrong. Urmilla did not come out to greet him, like she’d done every year for the past thirty-seven years, when he came home. She was not there to help him out of his coat and get him something cool to drink. She was not hurrying with the stool for him to put his feet upon, after he took off his waterboots to air out his feet. She was not there doing all the things he had assumed she would always be there doing for him.
Instead, there was an eerie quiet to the place. Emmanuel lingered outside for a long time, afraid to face what was waiting for him inside the house. Afraid of what he would find.
Even before he went into the house and found Urmilla’s body, covered in a thin film of perspiration, he’d known, felt deep in his bones, that she was gone.
Somewhere towards the bushes he had just left behind, he heard the high-pitched ah-ah-eeeeek rising on the last note, the whip-whip-waaaark of a bird in flight.
Jacqueline Bishop was born and raised in Kingston Jamaica, before coming to the United States to attend college—and to be reunited with her mother. She is the founding editor of Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts & Letters and is presently editing a film on a group of Jamaican untutored artists called The Intuitives. She lives and works in New York City ... the 15th parish of Jamaica.
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