[Image: “Untitled,” Cecil Cooper]
Her distended belly moved uncomfortably in front of her as she weaved her way through the bushes. She was on fire. Monica could see the flames licking her stomach and as she cried, black smoke slowly oscillated from between her legs, pumping out as she walked and whimpered, clutching her belly and the squirming contents.
If she could just reach the house; if she could just lie down in her bed and rest, everything would be okay. But her stomach was on fire. She would need to pass by the pit first and get some water to put it out. And she would need to be quick—it was spreading.
Her parched throat was like sandpaper that scraped her tongue as she swallowed. Groaning, she waddled through the neighbouring cornfield as quickly as she could. Short steps with her hardened bare feet padded their way through the sun-bleached yellow field that was flanked by the lush green of the island. Her wild hair splayed out around her head like a halo, not having been brushed for months, donned leaves and dry twigs from lying on the ground.
She had been watching the skies and the clouds. They were forming flat, deflated shapes, different to what they normally formed, and they were moving fast—that wasn’t usual. They were usually low, lumbering clouds hanging in the heat.
Sometimes, if she sat very still, she could hear things, murmurings—voices on the air. Things that she remembered her grandmamma had told her. She was small then, but she remembered everything the old woman said, and how she felt.
Grandmamma Ivorene hadn’t left. People were tied to the land—even she knew that. They stuck around after death. In the air. On the wind. In the trees that whispered at you as you ran home from school. In the eyes that watched you as you spied on the neighbours. Just because you died, didn’t mean that you were gone.
You were wrapped up and weaved into the fabric of the earth—a Peter Pan fug hung over the island and trapped everyone that ever was, and everyone that ever would be.
There was no escape. She remembered clearly Ivorene’s death and the tale of the spirits who came to take her home. Grandmamma still talked to her; grandmamma never left her.
The shapes in the sky were her messages. All she had to do was figure out exactly what her Grandmamma was trying to tell her. And today, when the clouds were swiftly moving across the sky, she was thinking.
All the thoughts jumbled up in her head needed straightening out, they needed order. And while she was doing all that, somehow, in the heat, somehow, her stomach had caught fire.
She imagined a flare from the sun had burst out of the sky and licked her in her stomach, causing her to double over in pain at the intense violence of the heat.
She screamed at the first stab of pain, but as she waited and breathed, it ebbed like the sea, and slowly, slowly it was gone. But she knew. It would be back. The fire was burning gently but it was spreading. She needed to cool it. She needed water.
She needed to go home.
Rolling up in a sitting up position, she was able to maneuver herself and stand. Her hand instinctively went to her arching back which was strained under the pressure of her belly as she moved through the bushes getting closer and closer to her home; her white cotton dress billowing around her bare legs as she stumbled—rolling her weight on alternate legs.
Once she reached The Cliff, the little house seemed to feel her distress and reach out spindly wooden arms to help her along. But she needed water first, so she sidestepped the clingy attachments and went along the path that ran along the edge of the house and to the pit at the back.
The pit was a huge square, deep hole that caught rainwater as it fell. It was as wide as the house and fell away into what appeared to be bottomless. Camouflaged by huge green banana leaves placed on top for as long as she could remember, it blended into the undergrowth. The multi-purpose large leaves would keep the sun off, minimise the evaporating, keep the water cool and keep animals out.
Playing as a child, Monica once nearly fell in as she skittered around it in a unintentional game of chase with her Grandmamma.
‘Me a go ketch yu, yu likkle wretch yu!” Grandmamma would call after her with the strap in her hand. But Monica always outsmarted the old woman. Sanctuary came in the form of granddaddy’s house at the top of the hill. She learnt at an early age, to fall into the pit would mean death by drowning in the deep, cold, inky black. And to fall into the hands of her furious grandmamma was akin to another kind of death.
The old red bucket was perched nearby with a rope tied to it for lowering into the pit. Monica grabbed her tight stomach, squatted on wobbly legs and precariously removed the large banana leaves.
The black looming eye fell away from the sheer edge to the deep centre of the earth. She paused momentarily, gazing into the yawning chasm; imagining its pit-black glittering eye was staring back with an ancient, earthy malice. As if under some kind of spell, she swayed gently as she stared before dropping the bucket into the pit. She counted. Three seconds before she heard it splash. Her legs smoldered. She had better hurry up. The heat was spreading.
Suddenly the pain intensified, sending electric shooting pains up her legs, round her belly and to her spine. She gasped aloud as stars danced in front of her eyes and the pain increased. A long intense burn radiated through her body as she felt a heavy pressure at the bottom of her stomach. Her head spinning, she lost her balance and slipped, sprawling dangerously close to the edge.
Bare feet, covered in mud, she landed awkwardly. A scream ripped through her. Pain shot up her spine from her coccyx bone, immobilizing her in agony, one foot perilously dangling over the edge as she breathed deeply to ride out the pain—in through the nose, out through the mouth.
And as she lay there, again, predictably, the rolling pain ebbed, leaving a throbbing in her left ankle that swelled before her eyes. Tears brimming, she realised she could not get the water.
Struggling to her feet, she rolled herself up, slipping a little in the mud and wincingfrom the pain in her ankle. Her breath came heavy and laboured, part though pain as the electric shocks snapped up her spine and part through fear as she was too close to the sharp edge. Her feet sent dirt and pebbles skittering into the darkened depths.
She froze, listening.
The stones echoed and bounced of the sides, before a far away splash parroted the reply. Her breathing became wheezy as her heart pounded. She would need to be more careful.
The House, stretched out its knobbly, wooden arms again, to which she gratefully grabbed. They helped her round to the front of the house and up the three steps to the veranda and into the cool of the living room.
There was no one at home. Visibly relaxing, she hobbled as best as she could, leaning on the wall for support, past Queen Victoria who eyed her with a concerned gaze, her heart shaped crown was dusty and faded, but still looking regal with her glossy, flat hair stuck to her head and her pale blue sash across her puffed-up dress.
Over she went to her little bedroom off the main room and lay on the cool sheets. And there she lay as the repetitive pain ripped through her body again. Fire radiated up her stomach, around her back and licked at her chin. The roar of the flames deafened her senses as she was blinded by the brilliant light. Her skin fizzed, bubbled and popped in the searing flames as the fire hungrily ate her flesh. Crying pitifully, her burning eyes mingled tears from pain and fear. The black smoke which billowed, blocked her airways as she coughed and spluttered, desperately clawing in breath. A low, primal growl erupted from deep within her throat as an intense pressure built up at the bottom of her stomach. Taking a breath, she instinctively pushed.
The fire devoured her entire body, licking and cracking her skin, flesh and bones. She cried aloud; a desperate, mournful cry as she lay alone in the house in pain, which rocked, creaked and groaned along with her moaning.
Something in her made her push. Again, and again, and again, and before she knew it, there was something between her legs, and the pain eased. Weak as she was, she pulled her cotton knickers to one side and felt a large, hard round lump. Without much time to recover, the waves of pain engulfed her again, pounding her senses. More urges to push amid a confused dizziness, caused her body to force whatever it was, out. With all instinct and urgency, she expelled the mass in a few strong, guttural pushes.
And out it came. Crowned in blood and water and slime; she caught a baby.
A baby? Monica stared at the little face, the pushed up lips, and the curled fist.
A baby. And in her relief, the pain was gone; the fire was put out.
Carefully, she cupped the baby and brought it close to look into its face. A baby.
She was beautiful.
‘Mary.’ She whispered as she cradled her in her arms, careful not to drop her, and lay back in the bed to catch her breath. If she hadn’t been here to see it herself, she never would have believed it. A baby. Blood and water saturated the good floral bedsheets. Ivy would be cross with her, but she’d be more cross when she saw there was one more mouth to feed. A baby.
And as she breathed, she relaxed. The little wooden house seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at it all being over. It swayed gently, rocking both Monica and Mary, encompassing them in love, life and memory.
She lay back. Her eyes looked towards the ceiling and the wooden beams covered in dust; highway to the fire ants. She stared at the wooden roof of her home, and as she stared she breathed deeply and fell into herself.
The ceiling became thinner and thinner until it disappeared altogether and she could see the clear blue sky stretching off into the golden forever over the horizon. She smiled. And fell further back. There were no clouds lumbering by, but she could see traces of gold weaved into the blue as the sun shone deep and true. And as she watched, small tufts of thin cloud appeared and slowly drifted, calming her heart and soothing her soul. She relaxed a bit more as Mary snuggled close to her breast. And it was then that she heard her.
‘Monica? Monica. What ‘appen ‘ere?’
‘Hmmf… mi a go tell yu time and time again not fi lay pon mi good bedsheets with yu dutty self! Lard Jesus! De sheet dem from h’Englan! How yu pickney jus ‘ave it pon de bed so? Yu na know yu haffi save it fi best? Fi guest dem!? Wah di rass! Look how me good, good bed sheet dem ruin!’
‘Grandmamma! Mi sorry… Mi sorry.’ Her breath was raspy. Ivorene kissed her teeth in frustration.
‘Na boda ‘bout dat now. Me a go tek yu home.’
Monica smiled weakly. She had missed her Grandmammade spite the way they used to fight. It was never the same after she was gone. Home sounded nice. Home sounded like a rest and she was so very tired.
‘Can she come?’ She looked at the sleeping baby in her arms. Ivorene softened.
‘No, darlin.’ She need fi stay ‘ere. Ivy tek good care of ‘er’. Monica’s lip trembled like it did when she was a child and her grandmamma scolded her for something.
‘Mi na want fi leave ‘er…’ Fresh tears welled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks, cleaning tracks on her dusty face. Ivorene reached a hand to comfort her granddaughter.
‘Yu na gwan lef her. Not really.’ Monica clasped the old woman’s hand which was firm, sturdy and good. Instantly, they appeared at the bottom of the bed and watched as Monica’s body lay sleeping with the brand new baby.
‘Ivy coming up de road. She soon come, y’here? She tek care of the pickney.’
Monica’s body lay curled, cradling her newborn babe which slept soundly in its mother’s arms. She smiled. They both looked so peaceful. Mary’s new hair was soft, curly and black and Monica’s was wild and dirty, but good. Her white cotton dress was stained with dirt and blood. And her dirty feet were on the white bedsheets with the blue forget-me-not flowers—all the way from England. And just as Monica and Ivorene left through the ceiling of the little house, she realised she was one of the lucky ones, and for that she was grateful. And, of course, grandmamma was right.
Only the lucky ones got to die in the comforts of their own bed. Her big sister Ivy would take good care of Mary. And she’d watch. She’d be in the trees that whispered at her as she ran home from school. In the eyes that watched her as she spied on the neighbours. She would laugh at her antics and her tricks that she was bound to play. Just because you died, didn’t mean that you were gone. The place clung to you. A Peter Pan fug hung over the island and trapped everyone that ever was and everyone that ever would be. There was no escape. But she didn’t want to escape—she would happily be tied to Mary forever and ever.
She looked to the skies as she ascended with Ivorene on her way home, the sky was a clear, crisp blue without a John Crow in sight.
Footsteps could be heard stepping up the wooden slats of The Cliff and entering the house. The house groaned a welcome to Ivy but was mournful. It ached at the loss of Monica. Ivy could feel the stillness in its wood as she entered the living room through the veranda. She stood listening. Her feet afraid of its steps. Her breath stilled, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. Queen Victoria’s face was stern and solemn as she looked through Ivy, refusing to meet her eyes. The house felt stifled, stiff and vacant.
Something was missing.
Something was wrong.
Cheryl Diane Parkinson is a final year Phd Student studying Creative Writing at Birmingham University, part of the Russell Group. She is a teacher of English Literature and Language, GCSE and A Level, in an inner London school.
Her publishing history includes non fiction articles published through the National Union of Teachers, The Voice Online and The Fem Magazine. More recently she has had fiction published in the magazine Gendered Voices. You the Many, We the Few. She currently lives in Essex with her partner, three children and their five cats.
Cheryl Diane Parkinson is currently seeking literary agent representation.