The Message: A Short Story

Dawn was yet to break and Alwyn Cooke had not quite decided what he would do that day, when the knocking on his door startled him and his wife, Ylaria, out of their morning routine. As soon as Alwyn Cooke heard the knock on the front door, he jumped from his seat, spilling his bush tea, and dashed towards the back door, which led onto a backyard and further still into the bush, where, he knew, he would be able to hide for days without being found.

As it turned out, however, Alwyn Cooke did not need to run because the knock on the door came not from the police, who would not venture into the eastern end of the island before the break of day, but from Solomon Carter, whose countenance, severe and pained at the same time, was met by the similarly stern expression in Ylaria Cooke’s face.

Good day. Solomon Carter did not wait for an invitation to come inside the house, nor did he expect his greeting to be reciprocated by Ylaria.

You husband home, or he gone hide in de bush, already? Alwyn Cooke, midway between his backyard and the shrubs beyond, stopped in his tracks when he realized it was but a harmless visitor. As he made his way back into the house, Sol Carter nodded in the direction of Alwyn Cooke and, disparagingly, You be man enough to make dis mess, an’ you ain’ man enough to stan’ by it? The long, loud, pronounced sucking of his teeth left no room for doubt in terms of his disapproval of the prior evening’s events.

Relieved that is was not the police, Alwyn Cooke welcomed Solomon Carter warmly into his home. But Solomon Carter had not come to Alwyn Cooke’s house at this early hour of the morning to be treated as a friend, or to have his ego massaged. Solomon Carter had walked through the goat path that led from his home to Alwyn Cooke’s a good hour before the break of dawn because he wanted to make it completely clear to the man before he went into hiding, or better still, to prison, that neither he nor those around him would condone the sort of irresponsible behavior in which he had engaged earlier that night.

Alwyn Cooke tried to explain that he had had no connection to the group of troublemakers, but Solomon Carter was in no mood to listen to explanations – he had come to speak, not to listen, and above all, he had come to deliver one clear, if hostile message: I see too many people dead real close in my life, already, you know, an’ I ain’ goin’ t’rough dat again, jus’ because you say so.

Solomon Carter was not so much a pacifist, as he was suspicious of violence. That is to say he did not always advocate for peace, did not stand staunchly by peaceful methods as the best solution to any problem. Indeed, Solomon Carter had lived too long, had grown too savvy, to believe that honest-to-God goodness would be sufficient to produce any kind of long-lasting or even democratic change in Anguilla. However, what Solomon Carter had seen the day before had been a display of wanton, lawlessness; the sort of pointless, infectious violence that he had first experienced thirty years before, as a mere child, working in the cane fields on the southeastern plains of the Dominican Republic, one fateful winter in 1937.

I ain’ never had de chance to go to school yet, Alwyn, and Alwyn Cooke didn’t dare to voice the ”me neither” that formed in his throat. But de Lord bless me wit’ enough years to turn dem hairs behind my ears white, you know. An’ it don’ always have to be so, I tell you. Listen to wha’ I say, so you understan’ why I han’ you over to de police when I do.

A shiver ran through the spine of Ylaria Cooke, eavesdropping behind the curtain. She wanted to grab hold of the visitor by the neck and throw him head first out of her home. But Ylaria contained her anger out of respect for her husband, and Solomon Carter continued telling Alwyn Cooke how he had been to the Dominican Republic to cut sugar cane from the time he was twelve years old.

My mother, God rest her soul, she make me 1923, so when I was twelve, times were hard, you know. Alwyn Cooke knew all too well, because Solomon Carter spoke about a time of hardship and poverty in Anguilla, which had affected them both – a time when only those who left the island faced any chance whatsoever of earning a decent living for themselves and for those they left behind on The Rock.

Back in those days, Alwyn Cooke had been blessed by God, Lady Luck or the Devil, who knows, but he had found a place in the workforce of the largest estate in the island of St. Martin, just a few miles away from his beloved Anguilla. Meanwhile, Solomon Carter had had no choice but to embark with two cousins aboard a local schooner, The Warspite, on the five-day journey westward that would allow him to join his father and uncle at the alien cane fields of the Dominican Republic, where they had earned all the money in the family for the past ten years.

T’ree years straight I go cut cane for eight dollars a ton, an’ den de t’ird year somet’ing deadly happen. When we go Santo Domingo, people in de island already crazy. Everyone lookin’ at everyone else like dey is de devil self, like dey should not be dere, like dey de enemy.

One day we hear of fightin’ in one plantation close by; some oder day we hear hell break loose in town. Den one day come de Spanish people self. Dem come wit’ sticks, dem come wit’ stones, wit’ machetes, anyt’ing dem could find on de way, an’ dey call us dogs, woose dan dogs: dem call us pigs, an’ woose dan pigs: rats – de same people we cutting cane wit’ for years, de same people bleedin’ dem hands every day wit’ you for t’ree years, de same people drinkin’ you rum at night, night after night, now come treat we like we rats, hittin’, kickin’, t’rowing stones at we heads.

This was already in the despotic days of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, and things were no longer what they used to be. Ever since his ascent to power, in 1930, measures had been taken against the assimilation of black immigrants, even if they were only temporary workers, in favor, instead, of European blood, which would contribute to Trujillo’s general plan of “improvement” of the nation’s natural stock. Nevertheless, Solomon Carter’s family had been employed faultlessly by the same plantation for a full decade, and the passing fancies of yet another autocratic ruler in the country were not about to govern the way in which the bigger – more potent – plantation owners ran their business. Thus, the Carters, along with a number of proven West Indian workers, were asked year in, year out to spend the months spanning from January to July working the cane fields, as usual.

One child, younger dan me, get hit in de head, fall stone cold. We start fightin’ back, you know. We fight as we can, we get de machetes from dem, we cut dem wit’ dem own weapons, we hit dem wit’ dem own stones. When police come, four people dead on de groun’. We t’ought police come help we, but dey only aks questions an’ leave dem Spanish alone. Den dey come aks we more questions – some senseless questions dat have not’in’ to do wit’ not’in’, like how we go say parsley in Spanish: perejil. Who cyan’t say it go inside de truck. I don’ speak Spanish. I go inside de truck wit’ plenty fellows from Haiti.

Alwyn Cooke listened carefully to Solomon’s tale. His words were matched by an intense silence that emanated both from Alwyn’s eyes and from Ylaria’s presence, concealed behind the curtain. And yet, the atmosphere in the room had changed: there was no longer any of the aggression Ylaria had felt against Solomon Carter, nor any of the fear Alwyn had felt when he first heard the knock on the door, but, rather, a heavy charge of energy, of undiluted passion, which, unwittingly, was being invested in the same cause.

Dey ’bout to take we to de river, when one Spanish fellow look me in de eye, call the police an’ say I ok, I English. So dey take me out, while every person in de truck screamin’ an’ shoutin’ an’ tryin’ to come out wit’ me.

Dem take more dan twenty people from de plantation dat day. Dem take me friend, Kyan, too. He seventeen – older dan me. We cut de cane side by side every day for t’ree years. Dem take he an’ de rest to de river an’ make dem drown, for no good reason. Or dey kill dem before an’ make it look like dey all drown. De same people we work wit’ everyday for t’ree years. Some more dan t’ree years. Dem say dey kill ten t’ousan’ people in de river. Ten t’ousan’ people. You can picture ten t’ousan’ faces in you head? You know how much blood dat make? A whole new river.

Dawn was about to break; the roosters in Alwyn Cooke’s yard and all around his home had begun their daily round of crowing. Alwyn Cooke had already figured out he would have to hide in the bush for a while, until things cooled down a little. What is more, he knew the time to hide was right now, while there was enough light to find his way through the tangled shrubbery and yet not enough to be seen by the police.

We come back before time dat year. We leave when we catch de first good wind and we make it home in twelve hours. Normally, plenty schooners would make de way back at de same time, racing eastwards wit’ de wind to see who make it home first. Normally, it have a big party in Anguilla when we men come home. De women dress like dey goin’ to church, and de children dress de same way, waiting by de beach, wit’ music an’ food an’ all kinds of jollification, for de men to reach. Dis year dere ain’ no race, an’ dere ain’ hardly no talk at all on de way back. Dis year de beach empty wit’ not’in, as de men come back before time, we hands empty like never before, wit’ no money, but happy to be alive. I remember de morning sun come out, shine on de white sand of Sandy Groun’ an’ I t’ink I never seen somet’ing so beautiful yet in my long life.

I know dat day in de truck someone up dere pardon my life, an’ I know it for a reason. I ain’ know for wha’ reason yet, but dat mornin’ when I lay foot on Anguilla soil I promise to God, I promise to myself, I ain’ never – never – goin’ let somet’in’ awful like dat happen in Anguilla. Not even somet’in’ similar. Not even ten persons dyin’ jus’ like dat. Not’in’. An’ if God let me live to stop you from performin’ you stupidity, Alwyn Cooke, den so be it.

Before making his way out into the open field, Alwyn turned in the direction of Solomon Carter and, rather solemnly, I give you my word, Sol, you ain’ never gonna have to stop me doin’ not’in’ at all, because wha’ you want an’ wha’ I want is one an’ de same t’ing.His words lingered in the room a lot longer than his presence, for he simply turned his back on his unexpected guest and on his concealed wife, and walked out of the door, through the back yard and into the bush.

This excerpt on The Night of the Rambler was published as a standalone short story by The Caribbean Writer, St. John, USVI. Vol. 25, 2011.

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