Death Comes in Threes by Damion Spencer
Wasafiri is proud to publish the shortlisted works of the 2021 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by skilled new writers from all over the globe. In the final instalment of shortlisted pieces, Damion Spencer writes vividly and with spectacular voice, creating a life writing piece that thrills.
The 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 30 June. You can enter the prize and read more about it here.
Kevin, come here little bit.’
She was the kind of woman who’d wait until you were doing something before demanding your attention; the type to call you back to the yard when you’d already walked a mile. I went with the rake held up to my chest.
‘Oh, you were raking?’
‘Anyway, Pat just called me to the fence and pinch it tell mi that Piggy’s body float up all the way in Ginger Bottom.’
I could feel a disappointment coming on.
‘Just last week they chopped a goat thief to death in Labyrinth,’ she said, ‘death comes in threes.’
There it was! I was waiting for it. Until death – whoever that was – killed a third person, I would be stuck in the yard catching the house colour. Then again, that blasted Piggy should count as two, since he was both a fool and an idiot. He got to go abroad and decided to take a last swim in Jamaica because he didn’t think there were rivers where he was going. And who steals a goat this time of year? I thought that was a Christmas season thing. These two had to spoil it for me.
I hadn’t heard Aunty come out. Usually, her hip would have shoved the mahogany dinner table, set halfway in the doorway. But she had gone and fretted away her weight. Now she and her clothes were in malice, the kind only seen between a shade and its lampstand. Pastor Parry, her husband, just up and left one day. Rumour had it that he had found foreign woman and was living somewhere on the north coast. Aunty was never the same. Her days were spent searching for what was left of her mind in Massa God’s empty sky. And tormenting me.
‘Yo mouth moving but yo not saying anything.’
‘I’m not saying anything, Aunty.’
‘Please to stay right in this yard, you hear mi?’
Not a backside. I had spent all summer collecting empty bottles, selling them 50 cent a piece to buy my goggles. You know how many people called me ‘bakl police’ for the extent at which I searched high and low for those bottles? All that sacrifice would be in vain. Not a backside.
It was August 1992. The guinep crop was coming to an end and the leaves that remained crisped-up and fell like it was nobody’s business. Together with the whitish Ackee blossom brushed off by the bees – before the daily rake – the yard looked as if it had caught fire the night before. I sat in the crotch of the Parson Brown orange tree with my face skyward. It was then I thought about you. Yes, you in that iron bird being flown to some other interesting place. I wondered what us inland folks looked like to you from up there. Maybe nothing like resort beaches littered with sweet almonds and sea biscuits. I imagined your eyes must be those of a big, black John Crow. One caught up into the heavens on the warm morning air. Free, and with a good view of everything. I closed my eyes and pictured it all.
Hills humped and bowed towards the White River Valley — a herd of Jamaica Blacks drinking at a watering hole. Out from the rocks, the river oozed and silvered on the green the way snails ruin a callaloo crop. Houses cotched on the hillsides. Cookfires smoked as if coal kilns had broken too soon. The sky, a freshly washed blue sheet spread out on a line. Clean. Except for darker shades of blue in places like wet spots waiting on the sun. And the breeze was a screech, the likes of a mongoose chased by a culling mob. It came over the backs of each hill wrapped in a smell that was sweet, fresh, and rotten at the same time. But I didn’t have those eyes. Hell, I couldn’t even go passed the orange tree let alone leave the yard. And I envied you. Yes, you in that iron bird going someplace interesting.
What I had was a fan broom, plastic and somewhat toothless; a dirty yard and the raw sun waiting to ride on my neck back while I rake.
Markie and I had plans to go to the river. He was just recovering from a serious case of constipation, brought on by stuffing his gut with too many young guineps. He told me that his granny’s remedy did the trick. Something to do with drinking lamp oil, a big common pin, and laying across his granny’s lap. Long story short, he was frequenting the outhouse again.
I’d known Markie since Basic School. He was one of the few people who knew that ‘Kevin’ wasn’t my real name. Aunty wanted that name on my age paper, something she never got around to. We had everything in common, that Markie and me, except he was ‘fourteen going on forty’ — a manliness that caused trouble for both of us. Aunty never liked us being together but with only a hibiscus fence between the two houses, we were pretty much ‘bench and batty’. That was how we came up with the grand idea to meet behind the big guango tree and make a dash for the river. The extra hands made the work lighter. Aunty didn’t object. It was a perfect plan.
You probably asking yourself why I was so fixed on going to the river. Well, it was shrimp and busu season and busu caught a good price at the square, where soup kitchens stood in wait for the tourists in buses on their way to tubing at the old Spanish bridge in Endeavour.
I agreed to stay in the yard. Pawed the rake and scraped leaves left, right and centre. Then over the cackling of dried leaves came a call for breakfast. I only saw Aunty’s frock tail wheeled passed the croton patch at the side of the house as she headed back to the fence. She and Pat occasionally shared dreams and had their talks— old maids are gluttons for gossip. At the top of their qualm list was how women from abroad were taking away the good men on the island. It always puzzled me how these two seers couldn’t discern that their men were going to leave them. I got in the house before the puss and took a few of the fried dumplings in my pocket to eat while I worked. Ride and whistle, that’s what old people call it when you don’t have the luxury to sit and eat.
It was never going to be easy to slip Aunty’s hawk eyes, especially now that she was standing out in the open with a clear view of the guango tree. I prayed for something to call her back inside the house or even a mild stroke or heart attack to give me a window to slip away. Believe me, I didn’t want her dead but sometimes I wished she would have left me alone. Slowly, the fried dumpling crammed in my cheeks started tasting a little like rotten leaves, a little like blighted ackee blossoms, and a lot like disappointment.
Markie stepped through the hedgerow. Two straw bags in hand, ready to haul leaves and head to the river.
‘How many times I tell you not to walk through the fence?’ Aunty barked.
‘Is a slap him want. Him know better!’ Pat chimed in.
‘Hard of hearing! No blasted ears hole!’
‘No ears hole,’ Pat echoed.
‘But it need the two of them to carry the little leaves?’ Aunty hissed her teeth and kicked a few leaves near her feet.
‘Look man, you hard of hearing Markie, carry the leaves and you Kevin, continue raking.’
She had both hands akimbo. Nose turned up until we could see the white of her eyes. And just like that, we were right back at square one. Markie left with the two bags on his shoulders. Whispered to me that he would be waiting, but not for the entire day, so I should try and meet him later. We exchanged bird calls, kept the plan alive, but my wings were clipped. I didn’t hear Markie after a while. At that point, it didn’t look as if I was going anywhere. Aunty and Pat stood under the shade of the aralia and hibiscus talking, while I roasted in the sun.
I was almost sunstruck when I heard a small voice: ‘Hol’ dog’. The voice was so low it sounded like a small child’s. Down at the gate stood Pakool with a carton box on his head. An old farmer who had been frequenting the yard ever since Pastor Parry left. If I didn’t know better, I would think he had taken a liking to Aunty. Our eyes made four. He held up his hand. I held up my hand. He didn’t move. Coward. I dropped the rake and went and fetched this grown man. We met at the Parson Brown tree, he asked me to help him take down the load off his head.
‘You want me to get Aunty?’
‘She’s here?’ he asked in a whisper as if his voice was trapped at the back of his throat.
‘She’s talking to Pat.’
‘Lawd, Pat mouth can’t tame.’
‘Ok Pakool. I have raking to do so you can wait on the verandah.’
‘I’m alright where I am. I don’t want Pat to know my business.’
He leaned on the orange tree. Knocked out his pipe on the side of his water boot. Grounded a leaf of dried tobacco in his palm and prepared his smoke.
‘Yo not going to rake?’
‘That is not what I want to do. I want to go to the river.’
‘Aunty not having it?’
‘How did you know?’
Pakool laughed and shook his head. A pearly white smog left his pipe.
‘We are all rivers, you know?’
‘Yes, rivers running in and out of each other until we end up in the sea.’
‘I don’t think Aunty is any river, more like a pond; she’s never leaving this yard again.’
‘No, she’s a tree.’
‘I still think she’s a pond.’
‘What if you’re a tree and Aunty is a wall?’
‘Man, how all these riddles going to help my situation?’
‘I want to be a bird, so I can fly away!’
‘Tell you what bird, let Aunty get this little parcel for me.’
‘What are you? River or tree?’
Pakool said nothing. I didn’t think he was that sensible. If Pakool didn’t speak, anyone would think he was a mad man. He made me realise that we all had problems. And we all were looking for someone else to blame for them. He dusted his pipe and left.
‘Remember not to leave this yard.’
‘Mass Pakool left something for you.’
‘That old goat. You don’t let him back in this yard without telling me.’
I had almost given up on the river when Pastor Parry drove up in a brand-new cherry-red station wagon Lada. Two years this man hadn’t shown his face. But lo and behold, like a lamb to the slaughter, preacher man came home with a lady friend.
It was a big girl. I wasn’t raised to make fun of anyone, but you couldn’t tell them apart from a mouse on a dollar bread. The rolls in her side gathered up all the fabric in her frock leaving nothing to the imagination. The worse part, she had on spike heels, so every step leaned to the side like a loaded market truck going through Fern Gully.
They had hardly stepped off the road when Aunty alighted from the verandah and started grabbing stones.
‘But si mi dying trial today,’ she said.
I kindly took myself out of harm’s way. Pastor Parry, too. He went back to save the new car, leaving his lady friend to face the stones alone. She skipped, hopped, and gambled about like a moko jumbie midway a fall. This was the window I’d prayed for all morning. I couldn’t tell you how the dus’ up ended because by the time I heard the Lada tires peeling up the road, I was miles away. Perhaps death might just have got his third victim after all.
When I got to the square, everybody with anything to sell was there.
I headed downstream through a bushy lane, lined with hedgerows that were thickened by sweet wood trees and black wist. After battling a red poll that blocked the path, I almost got a heart attack when a speckled bantam flew across my face. I made it to the water. Gave out a bird cry. ‘Cooh!’ was the reply. Markie was there.
‘Box cover, yo made it man!’
‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world.’
‘How did you escape?’
‘Long story brethren, let’s catch some busu.’
‘Ok boss man, this may be the last time I will see you alive cause Aunty must kill yo later.’
After sinking the last calabash, Markie and I sat on a river stone eating leftover crab bait — mostly coconut and saltfish. We could hear them playing in the water upstream. All the girls had come to bathe at the same hour today.
We had to take a peek. On hands and knees, we crawled through the wild coco yams. Sunlight, pressed through the bamboo leaves, fell on the purple watergrass like rusty chicken wire. Soft, grey loam wriggled through our fingers and caked to our knees. It was soft and silent. But before we could get anywhere near the frolicking, the girls started screeching like crows in a swarm feed.
‘Put one more foot forward and I wet you up with this panty-water,’ one girl said, stooping to hide her nakedness. They started wheeling water from their undergarments.
‘Don’t let the panty-water touch you,’ Markie cried. ‘It will make you worthless!’
We took a hasty retreat, trailed by cries of ‘rape!’ and ‘peeping Tom!’.
At a clear distance, Markie answered in fine style: ‘Who want to rape any a you? After we don’t like board. You all tough like board.’
‘Tough like yo’ Muma?’ one of the girls fired back.
Markie wanted to throw stones, but I held his hand. We were in the wrong and we were outnumbered. As hard as it was to swallow being called a ‘peeping Tom’, it would be harder to live with being thrashed by a band of girls.
Markie asked if I had seen anything and began drawing a figure of a naked girl on a black river rock. He drew a big bush for the girl and joked how she was a dreadlock down there.
‘Can’t even piss straight but you into sex.’
The man voice frightened us. We both looked around and there stood Mad Dwight, hands folded behind him, no black in his eyes and foaming at his mouth.
‘A bet a kill you today!’ Mad Dwight showed his hands with a cutlass in each, sharpened white from the throat to the point.
He made a chop. The cutlass sang out as it got stuck in a low limb from a quickstick tree. Mad Dwight fought to free his cutlass. We galloped off the rock and headed back upstream at birds’ speed.
The girls screamed out again as we approached the river: ‘Wet them up! Wet them up!’
‘Mad Dwight! Mad Dwight!’ we bawled out to them.
Like frogs leaving the river, they all leapt to the banks, naked — not keen on hiding and we no longer interested in looking.
Nobody knew Mad Dwight was out of the madhouse. Nobody was out when Mad Dwight walk the streets. That double cutlass wielding madman chop at even the breeze. He’d have no reservations chopping us.
So, we ran. When we came up on the cow pasture overrun in cow-itch, that didn’t stop us; we ran through it. The common leading to the road had more Shame Old Lady than grass, still we didn’t stop; we ran through all that prickle barefooted. The road was almost in sight when a girl fell. We turned to check on her, but there Mad Dwight was, attached to us like a shadow. We had to fling a few rocks to slow him enough for the girl to make it up to the road.
We ran up to the square. It looked nothing like when I had passed on my way to the river. Fresh marl plugged the potholes and whitewash daubed on every living tree, made it a spectacle in anticipation for the tourists. The row of shops sparkled in happy yellow at top and grey skirting to mask the dirt and marl. And like the shops, every face was made up to look pleasant to make the foreign money. Well pleasant until we came along. Ms Mary, a kind shopkeeper, took the girls in. News of Mad Dwight put business on pause. Shutters came down on all shops. Ms Mary shop door had to be pushed up from the outside, so that was for Markie and me to do in order to save the women. Yes, those same women who wanted to make us worthless.
When Mad Dwight got to the square, we could only hide in the gutter under a culvert. He swooped down on us and started jamming the blades in the drain. We crawled to the other side and out of reach. He took a bamboo pole and started ramming the hole like he was invading a rat’s nest. Markie got out on the other side first and reached back to pull me out. My right heel was burning like I stepped in Satan’s chamber pot. It was sliced clean and hanging from a thin scab of flesh.
‘Run Markie, a won’t make it,’ I called out.
‘A not leaving you, he will have to kill the two of us.’
Damion Spencer is a Jamaican living in Japan. He completed Literacy Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona and Creative Writing at the University of Hull. His short story ‘Bunka Bat and Sour Orange’ was recently published in Volume No.35 of The Caribbean Writer, a spectacular tribute edition celebrating literary giant Kamau Brathwaite. He enjoys writing on train commutes around Tokyo, rewatching old movies and obsessing over game shows and puzzles. Damion and his wife share their home with their two wonderful children — a moody teenager and a needy toddler.