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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Buxton Spice

Excerpts from Buxton Spice, the acclaimed first novel by Guyanese writer Oonya Kempadoo

  • Oonya Kempadoo, author of Buxton Spice. Photograph by Marcel Israel/ Courtesy O. Kempadoo
  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

TREE

In the crook of the house was the big fat Buxton Spice Mango Tree. So close-up to the house it could see everything: through the upstairs windows, the window on the landing, the kitchen, even into the bathroom and toilet. So big I couldn’t climb it. Was one tree I didn’t like. Walking down the stairs you could feel this thing knowing what you’re thinking. Your head gets to level with the window and there’s this thick, black and green arm, just there. It knew too much. All the bickerings in the kitchen, the whisperings in the bedrooms, even your private toilet-seat thoughts — a damn mango leaf always scratching on the outside of the frosted pane. Yowaris lived in it. And lichen and fungus and the big Powis bird. Ripe black-spotty mangoes splattered the concrete below. Sometimes Ramesh and Mikey would climb up for the firm bunches. Fooling around, showing off thirty feet above the septic tank. Foolishness. Watching them silently from my bedroom window. Pretending I didn’t even want any green mangoes. Late at night, my bigger sisters’d show off too. Going out on the roof in the moonlight to pick green mangoes. And eating them right there. Lolling off and behaving ridiculous.

Its mangoes were sweet but I never wanted it to know how much I enjoyed them. But the damn thing would know anyway. It knew everything and wouldn’t tell me nuthing. Just there, swelling-up itself with all the secrets. Not just our house secrets. It could see all of the street in front our house. Into the Peters’s house across the other side, onto the roof of the shed opposite us, to the DeAbro’s shop. Even inside Aunt Ruth’s closed-up house behind the shop. And into Miss Isaac’s cow pen. Into all the side streets, and through the windows of the Pastor’s house. On Saturdays it watched all the market stalls setting up, unfolding and spreading from Mainroad to Teacher Dolly’s yard. It could see the games children were playing in the schoolyard, could see the gas station where Bottom House Crappo sat at night. Past Mainroad — quite over so — down Backdam. Could even see the fruits on the trees and the sharp green shine of the water hyacinth leaves clogging the brown canals down there.

All around too. It could see behind our house. Behind the empty lot to the hot, still cemetery. Knew where Mr Man was buried and where Pasa the grave digger would dig the next grave. And on to where the red mud banks of the big Broadie Canal was smooth from us sliding down into the milky-tea water. Saw us splashing and pushing each other into the deep part, where we not supposed to swim.

Could even see over the roofs, between the tall swaying coconut trees, past the dome of the broken mosque, to the endless seawall and the distant brown sea. It could see when the tide went out and fishermen on wooden planks crouched and kicked their way out, sliding to their seines staked in the mud. Fast snails slithering out on miles of smooth grey mud, leaving glistening sunset trails. Returning sluggishly, boxes loaded with flopping fish, thick mud socks up to their knees and veins pumping on their thighs.

I knew it could hear things going on everywhere in Guyana. Sounds that went on in Berbice Mad House, New Amsterdam Town Hall, the President’s House in Georgetown, Linden Bauxite Workers Union. It could hear the sugar cane being crushed through the big iron rollers in Enmore Estate. And even catch the sweet husky paddy smell from the rice mill in Mahaicony. All these things and more. All the horrible darkroad secrets, the plotting and scheming. But it wouldn’t tell me things.

 

SEAWALL

“You know dat Miss Isaac’s grandchi’ren going New York?”
“Who? Floydy and Toady?”
“Un hunh, Dat same liver-lip Floydy.
And Toady.”
“Toady really eat cow-poop for money?”

“Of course, plenty time. Bernard tell me so. Uncle Bonnie sendin’ fuh dem. Rememba he?”
“Yeah. He wid he flop-hat. He was de one dat started calling my father ‘Dads’ an’ Mum ‘Mums’ — tryin’ to talk English like we.”
Judy smiled remembering Uncle Bonnie. We walked along the warm seawall slowly against the breeze.
“Imagine he, working in New York! He couldn’t even work de Rotovator, the t’ing pull him all over de garden, mash-up all Dads’s corn.”
Sammy and Rachel climbed up and over the seawall, down to the sea side. Tide was in. Brown water licking gently at the concrete slope. They nosed around, then scrambled back up to sit with us on top the wall.
“Yuh t’ ink Miss Isaac would go?” Rachel asked.
“Go an’ leave she house an’ cows an’ everyt’ ing?”
“I don’ know. How she go look after dem?”
None of us said anything.
“Felix said he goin’ send for me,” Rachel announced.
Judy looked at her in disgust. “Dats why you was always stick-up next to him.”
“You would go an’ leave us?” Sammy asked.
“Well all your sisters gone an’ leave youall,” said Rachel.

“Dey came from Away stupidie,” Judy answered. “Anyway Felix ain’ sendin’ fuh you. He have three chi’ren up dere now.”
We were silent for a while. Sammy turned, lay down on her stomach and dangled an arm down the seawall alongside our legs.
“When we start Secondary School, we’ll still lime together, right?” I said to Rachel.
“Un hunh.”
“We have plenty more years together, right?” Sammy put in. “You sound in’ like a old lady already,” Judy growled. “Rememba what you was talkin’ bout? We could get jobs in town and live in an apartment, like real town-girls.”
“Yeah, den we could do all dem wild-up t’ings.” “An’ have boyfriend an’ t’ing!”
“Wha’ kind’a boyfriend you want?” Sammy asked Rachel. “Oooh … a nice one. He mus’ have blond curly hair and blue eyes … an’ red lips.”
“Aye! What you think you is! A white girl?”
“Is a movie star yuh lookin’ for? Go cinema, you’ll find plenty! Look on all dem posters an’ t’ing.”
“Wha’ kind you want Sammy?”
“One like Raphael but younger. He like me yuh know.”

Raphael was the handsome rich town-boy who turned vegetarian and started growing dread-locks. He was a friend of the family, came and stayed with us sometimes to get away from town. When he came he had everybody in the village looking at him with a funny light shining in they eyes. Thoughts about ‘nasty rastas’ disappeared. Even Mrs DeAbro liked him. He towered over everybody with his gold-skinned self, smooth forehead and perfect teeth. And a body and profile like out of one of them art books with white statues in them.
“He!”
“Umm,” Sammy said dreamily.
I knew then that Sammy’s she-self had more power than I could ever get near. It was something I shouldn’t try to copy or compete with. She couldn’t help it. The minute Raphael was around, or Shaka the green-eye rasta, she’d be sitting on they knees, climbing on they backs, up underneath they armpit, blinking her she-self eyes at them. Raphael only smiled vaguely at me — sneaking past with my book and feeling ashamed then of having no shirt and my father’s old pants on. Was only once I talked with him — when I went for a walk by myself and found him on the bridge across Forty Canal.
I told him bout what I was reading — how people can communicate without talking. And how if you listen, you can hear the whole Universe talking. Told him how I tried it and it worked. I was on my way to the seawall to sit and hear the clouds talking. He could hear them too if he tried. The best part is when the whole sky, the blue part and the sun, join in. And sunset time, when it starts getting all mixed up, changing voices and colours, when Breeze sings softly. On a good evening, the Egrets flying home and the Courida trees join in. Was close to the bombing-up exploding feeling. But I didn’t know how to explain that to him.

Told him how in the night, from the upstairs window, the silver tops of the coconut trees talk to me. They swish and sway and whisper with scratchy voices. Their sharp edges glittering on big-moon night. A trance, the book called it. Trance-indental Meditation. It said you could just raise up off the ground, out of yourself, and take-off, gone. I told him how I sit on big-moon nights, in that kind of trance thing, eyes wide open, and dream of flying over the sea of silver coconut trees. Swooping and playing with the bouncy clouds, looking down on the white streets and zinc sheet roofs of the sleeping village. Listening, from up there, to the little night-time sounds — a dog’s bark, the frogs’ chorus. Feeling the moonlight on my skin, rippling like water. Rolling around in it. All of that I told him. Never talked so much to anyone bout all that. Talked till the light was almost gone from the sky.

While I was talking, there on the springy-plank bridge over Forty Canal, he was looking far away. Listening and gazing. He turned to me when I finished.

“That’s beautiful Lula,” he said in a strange voice.
He looked at me, his eyes strange too, making me soft and jellyish.
“You’re very … mature for your age.”
The jelly-soft feeling swelled up in me, warmed me right up to my ear-tips and stayed there while we walked back home together. We walked close-up, my arm brushing his thigh, down the just-dark street.
I turned to the girls on the seawall now. “Youall know what Raphael said to me?” I looked at Sammy. “Said that I’m very mature for my age.”
“Wagh! An’ you like dat?”
“How you mean? What?”
“You know what dat mean?” Judy half-shouted. “You force-ripe!”
“No!”
“Yes! Like dem town-girls.
Dey mature. Force-Ripe. Wagh!”


Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo is published by Phoenix House (1998). Excerpts reproduced by permission.