Passage

World going one way, people another. This time, I was too bothered to put up any kinda front. It is the fiercest arrow in nature’s quiver. The old man went on about how his youngest son come down with a fever and it just get worse and worse. They musta brung me inside the hut. I didn’t want to ask nothing. One man, he call heself lucky, the other man call heself unlucky. Suddenly, he regretted coming up to this woman. He cut their face with stone and rub pepper in the wounds. Mano’s wife is a social worker, and what Stew’s story did for me, mine did for her. She poised herself as if bracing for a massive blow. He gave in, however, and mapped it out for me. I finally started to have second thoughts. He’d remind you of that too. Her feet remain planted on the ground, but he could see her toes wiggling nervously. A drop of rain hit my nose. God bless.’
And that was that. When they asked the old man about the scars on the boys’ faces, he say it was for the second coming. And then there was no more smiles, especially from Mano, who was always grinning the widest and laughin the loudest. The sharp edge of a bramble hooked my face and ripped a bloody line straight from jaw to temple. I had someone call the ambulance for me and they took me into emergency. That was as human as human coulda be!’
The silence deepen and deepen as I went along. At the centre was a hut. Later that night, when we was ready to go home, I pull Stew aside and asked him about the hiking route. Stew is a hot line supervisor. GPS and compasses ain’t in the recipe for epiphany. The gash was wide open, almost flapping like a mouth. It was a woman. But I couldn’t sit and wait for the images to put themselves together. We never wanted him to stop the embellishment and the exaggeration though. ‘So what you do after?’ Mano cut in. To this day, I ain’t sure how much time passed before it was time to go. Was I forcing it? I tumbled down some outcroppings of rock and mud. Just curious.’
‘Hear m’well, brudda, we consider weselves lucky.’ Stroking his beard, he say, ‘Have the story of two men. Like an agouti back to its hole, he put it. Leafy vases of rainwater. Between them, two skinned manicous dangled, their pink flesh beaded with moisture. The door opened and a man popped his head out. Didn’t have no head or much of a torso – the body was just four limbs, with a rotting cloth strapped to it. They didn’t even have names. The rain pelting through and eating away at the soil. A house where the creatures and specters of the wood congregate. And as he stand in the waters, the unlucky man say to him, It seem to the lucky man, the sea is only knee-deep, and he give up and drown.’
‘What all that supposed to mean?’
‘Garden is rock,’ one of the boys replied. We call it rite o’ passage!’ was his defense. Then he saw someone. Was I was too drunk? I rubbed the stinging bloody gash on my chin, listening as the rain began to fill the stretch. She just kept interrupting with, ‘But how you, a big old horse, could lie through your teeth and say you was goin to work!’ and, ‘This is what does happen when you feel you still young!’ I was amazed how much she didn’t care bout the events in between. I was already imposing enough. The clouds was all gone now. Last Saturday, though, something put a sour taste in my mouth. While I was in the hospital, I finally managed to tell the wife the story. Yessir, been employed at the Forestry Division, stationed at the scientific reserve, nineteen years strong. Curious, he keep on the path till he come to a glade.  
*
 
When I woke up, I found myself lying on the ground, four faces staring down at me – an old man, a young lady and two boys. When the child died, he burn the body in a pyre of palm fronds. He say to me, ‘Bad fall y’had, brudda. Funny how you picture these things sometimes – you see yourself from the outside. On the bract, a small golden tree frog looked down at me, puffing its throat. It don’t pour. My eyes followed a queue of hunter ants scuttling down a rocky burrow. The smoke was coming from a pile of branches set at the edge of the glade, the fire long smothered. Thinking bout it, you don’t see much of those any more. I had a tale, a damn good one, and nobody didn’t care to hear it! I let it cushion my nostrils for a minute before speaking, ‘You always live here?’
‘Not always,’ he say. Looking at it closer, I could swear it was a crucifix. I used my trekking pole to prop up my weight. Me? I musta squashed it when I landed. Not even the children coulda budge from their iPads to hear me out. She embarked on her own mission to rescue these children. The old man was scrawny but strong. As he followed the path, he saw that there was more trees and more dolls. One of the papers ran a photo of the two boys sitting on a bench in some children’s home, looking totally lost. His sons run up to him and hugged his waist before we left. Cheeks sallow and sunken, almost like a carcass. I caught a glimpse of my broken ankle again and my head fell back. I had something – I finally had something! One of the boys, Mano, lean over to Stew, ‘Forest don’t have no mirage, boy.’
Stew replied, ‘Mirage or not, at that time, them tatas was real!’ Stew wanted a closer look at the young lady. The shore nowhere to b’seen and they give up all hope of seein land again. Times change, you know. Their long hair was tied back and knotted with loops of grass. Some fellas buy a Porsche, some lie down on their secretaries, some go to Miami. It’s as if the sky is coughing out sick gouts of water. Turn round and buss outta there one time! Not just a story. ‘Like they was barbecuin howler monkey!’ Stew say, prompting a rise of laughter from the table. Stew’s hiking stories ain’t nothing too special to me, because I am a forester. I was too invested in the events to even chuckle. But no, no. I tried to steady my breathing, taking in snatches of coolness in the air. I focused on the boys. I hurled my body up, only to suffer a jolting reminder of my injury. I braved Gasparee Caves enough times to remember. They dashed over to the corner of a room and returned with two half-calabashes of water. In wide spaces, in cities, in streets, the rain is simply a blanket. It looked like plastic, like it ain’t belong beneath flesh. The bone pierced right through the skin. I was too excited to wait for the Saturday. As you get older, you learn to embrace daydreams. Whether or not he gave them their scars, I decide to not to ask. That sight alone could go on any naturalist’s bucket list. I coulda barely breathe, much less speak. After the second round, I started telling the story. A single leaf of a giant bromeliad dipped over my forehead. The old man and the woman in handcuffs. Till they could do it without flinching, they couldn’t become men of God. Well, that sealed the deal and they end up putting him in the madhouse. ‘A human skull?’ Mano asked, breaking the silence. Couldn’t be more than thirty, Stew say – cocoa panyol complexion, barefooted, breasts exposed, nothing on but an old sapodilla brown cloth pasted over her hips, the fabric ripping into tassels at the edges. But she ain’t want to hear nothing of it. Edith Falls, Rio Seco, Saut d’Eau, Turure Water Steps, and each one had a goddamn parable attached to it, like each one was a pilgrimage to Mecca. The cloth strewn round the lower half of the figure was white, torn and damp. I gazed skyward at the soup of grey spilling across the canopy. I kept on the path until I spotted the stick doll that Stew was prattling on bout – twigs entwined with cloth, four limbs in the shape of a cross. ‘F’now, I stay here. The old man ain’t dare step foot outta the forest, though. The whole world turned upside-down – my vocal cords went so slack that I couldn’t even groan. I recognized a landmark in his description – the Morang Waterfall. A daub and wattle house in the middle of a clearing, walls slabbed with sticks and clay and dung and straw, topped with a thatched roof. Nice people in Lluengo, y’know.’
I couldn’t get the skull outta my mind. So, how come this one put the sourness in me then? The trekking pole was tethered to the side of my leg and the bottom was stuffed with leaves to fashion a sorta back-country splint. Was smoke that led him to the hut, visible just over the canopy. ‘Lil village near the coast, y’know it? Temptation incarnate. It don’t like to cooperate. Species displaced from habitat. Y’will be safe, as is my bad luck bring the storm! I never been more thankful in my life. I didn’t tell the wife. They make sure to beat him good first. I done my share of climbs and rappels as a lad. It was clarity. When he was done, he gave me a look like I was crazy. Had to make sure they was strong warriors and ready to face the Ancient of Days. Sometimes I remember the two boys wrapping their arms round their father’s waist back in El Tucuche. The old man snapped his fingers at me. I drive all the way up to the trail. How I remember it, seeing my body from the outside, a jumble of limbs cartwheeling down to a gully. Folks from abroad, selfie-stick enthusiasts, come by the vanload every weekend to brave the path. The rain pouring on the wound, trying to wash the blood onto the schist. He slung his arm round my neck to balance me as we made a path through the forest. I steeled myself before I rolled my pants up above my ankle. I ain’t bother to talk with any of the fellas after the whole mess went down. But in the forest, it is a cage. It ain’t even look like bone. A man is so small in the wilderness, believe me. It ain’t gonna be long till the rain come down, I remember thinking. I excused myself and went back to my car to take a smoke. ‘House is rock.’ The old man smiled at him. A blade of grass mightn’t hold no complexity to the common eye, but mine was trained to identify family, genus, species, dentate, palmate, serrate, lobate. And the end is nowhere in sight. You have to learn to get lost to really find yourself, was the man’s mantra. Figured it woulda be nightfall by the time we reach civilization, but it was barely twilight. As much as I try not to think about it now, it always comes back. My mind was set. The top stick was snapped, meant to mimic Jesus’ bowed head. He like to pride himself as a man who blazes his own trail. Wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t break away from these fellas I ain’t hardly ever liked, or that the new brand of beer they ordered had the aftertaste of bush-bugs. My children showed me a   photo of him bloodied up that went viral on WhatsApp. Above me, a long stick lain horizontally across the roof. As he draw closer it, he noticed a doll nailed to a tree, weaved from twigs. He was hesitant at first and, for a moment, I wondered if he made the whole thing up. When I looked down, I saw that one leg of my jeans had been cut off, a dried bloody deposit of red-and-black formin a zig-zag down my calf. On his spare days, Stew straps on the old spike-boots and backpack. My boot got caught in a tendril and sent me tumbling again. The unlucky man say to the other, You! ‘Imagine what was goin through my head, fellas,’ he say. Nobody really bothers with me now. I followed them and then there it was – the house. They couldn’t write or read. My eyes fluttered back to the hut. The daub and wattle house in the distance. As all Saturday nights went, we slipped by the wives and find weselves down by The Tricky Jester. The young lady, whose breasts was now banded with a piece of cloth, propped my head up and let me have a few sips. He ain’t talk much on the way, and the trek back was much shorter than I expected. The way how people is now, we ain’t tailored to live there. Poor things is listed as critically endangered, because of habitat loss, because of rainfall drought – and, God save our souls, because of we. I knew I coulda find my bearings from there. I try, try, try to get up only to send another barb of pain skewering my right leg. ‘Half-naked woman in the forest just waitin for me. I was halfway hoping that he was. Don’t matter if what happen was wrong or right. The woman didn’t have it so bad. Free from sin.’
‘How long you living here?’ I asked them. The excursions is too much to count.  
*
 
The next Monday, I decide to take a day off. Was I really expecting to finish this journey with my body intact? Set off that gravitational pull. The bowed branches of bois gris and serrette leaned in towards me, like giant bony fingers. My eyes widened – I expected it to vanish in a blink. I specialize in plants. ‘Yeah, boy, Mano, couldn’t be no animal, telling you! They gone out to sea and a storm come, wash’em away. When I finally landed, I heard a loud crack and the pain was so sharp that I felt it in my teeth.  
*
 
Two weeks passed since meeting the man and his family. ‘Y’pity we for livin in bush, eh?’ the old man say. ‘Cleaner here in the garden. Their faces were lined with identical keloids – careful ones rising evenly from their jaws like tapering tiger stripes. To me, it wasn’t craziness. Kevin Jared Hosein’s   ‘Passage’   is the winning entry from the Caribbean. They say when they showed them a TV, they screamed. They was completely naked except for a little slip of cloth covering their crotches. Rain is a selfish, indiscriminate creature. Somehow, these people managed to capture and cultivate it in their abode. Her hair loose in wiry kinkles. I didn’t relent. The crime was cremation without a permit. ‘Woman coulda be La Diablesse for all I know. The Tricky Jester, you leave your shame at the door. They was all so scrawny, I coulda see their spines. Not so much like a mirage, but a spirit house. I got to my feet and squinted, trying to make out the path ahead. I decide I had come too far to turn round. I couldn’t believe it. ‘You call it child abuse! The name made it sound like an establishment outta King Arthur days, but don’t get fooled – the place is just as grimy and ragadang as all them other hole-in-the-wall pubs you coulda find here in central Trinidad. The closer I got to it, the more I felt the needles of cold prick against my face. I dropped the skull and rocketed through the bushes. When I finally got discharged on the Thursday, I rang up the fellas and we organized a lime at the Tricky Jester. These tiny pools is where its little life will begin and end – from egg to tadpole to adult. He glided a pace backward. He then noted the sound of bone crunching beneath his heels as he approached the house. Was it the way I was telling it, I wondered? Y’come here to kill y’self, eh?’ He laughed. The feeling before I passed out – it was like I was falling into the sky. I ain’t answer any calls, but none of them really bother. I remained quiet about the skull as well – I ain’t sure I wanted to know. He is an important man, and so he gets to talk. Without my glasses, everything looked covered in a film of oil. Ain’t no use trying to find shelter, so I kept beating my way through the gnarled bushes. The trail, the rain, the house. The rain is different in the wild. I expected it to vanish in a flash of lightning. As long as I can feel the ground beneath my feet, I just shut my damn mouth and let the world turn. I could even tell you that El Tucuche ain’t a Spanish word like many believe (including Stew), but Amerindian, meaning ‘the Hummingbird’. ‘I take you to Lluengo,’ the man say. I nudged one of the charred branches with my boot and something rolled out from under it. Something not from this realm. The drooping leaves sagged sideways as a frenzy of air whip up along the canopy. Just something about the story throw me off – I couldn’t explain it at the time. If he did, they loved him for it. I couldn’t see what it was at first. I tripped on a rock in the stream and fell, grazing my chin on a log, my glasses flinging forth, cracking against a clump of bracket fungus. I turned around, lied on my back for a minute. ‘What y’think? It was like a magnetic force – a gravitational pull. See, Stew went out on this one hike – the mountain trail of El Tucuche. It was going good until I get to the two children. I suppose I shoulda watch the weather forecast before jumping into this. It seem that later that evening at the Tricky Jester, Mano went and tell his wife the whole story. Wasn’t no riot like when Stew tell a story. Every detail. I was determined to find this mystery woman. I was gonna die, I felt it. ‘What side y’come?’
I didn’t answer. Attached to it was three ristras of mangoes and breadfruit hanging from cerasee vines. Stew is a man who don’t follow the map. Something not meant for the human eye. As I shifted my other leg, I saw the fresh corpse of a golden tree frog, crushed and prolapsed. He is the man who oversees the crew that makes sure the power lines don’t catch fire. His beard, mottled with grey and coffee-brown, reached his collarbone. Yessir, I was gonna climb that mountain. My lenses was all misted, but I see it clear – the jagged crescent of light ripping through the centre of the sky. Outside, the rain was now just a pitter-patter of drips from the trees. It was only then he noticed how stick-thin she was. Seeing a frog like that is rare, lemme tell you. Most times, I don’t mind forcing myself to chuckle. Was then I realized it was a long time since I actually wanted to do anything. I come straight home and vow never to covet another woman ever again,’ he say, grinning. Once the first road came into sight, he tell me, ‘We part ways here. Waitin for the second coming.’
‘Second coming?’
‘The Ancient of Days,’ the lady answered, pouring another sip into my mouth. ‘I ain’t pity. I had to start moving. To any other man, a leaf is a leaf and a weed is a weed. The waterfall wasn’t far. I bathed with the turtles in Matura and scaled moras in Salybia. The Tricky Jester is another thing I try to shove into the past. Ain’t many times I been a man without a plan, but that’s why this expedition was feeling so good. In partnership with the   Commonwealth Writers,   Granta   publishes the regional winners of the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. The advertised route ain’t a hard one, but not an amateur one either. All that was missin was the hoof.’
I felt a weight drop in my stomach. The reports filled the papers, radio, social media – it was the talk of the town, and my name wasn’t mentioned in nothing. But when she started to make noise, the judge pound the gavel and decide to throw her ass in there too. I have to beg my children to hug me sometimes. Too awkward. She was young. Get Stew loose on white rum and salt prunes and you wouldn’t think they could ever put such a man in charge of 12,000 volts. After all, what goes on inside his head could keep your house from being reduced to ash. While the lucky man struggle to reply, he kickin and kickin and find a rock beneath he feet. For a minute, I stood before this sprawling mass of mountain and forest, trying to assemble any memory of the path to the waterfall. The crack, well, I figured it was just a branch. Nah, this acidic tang bubbling under my tongue come from the story Stew was telling. Don’t get me wrong – I ain’t saying all of this to look smart – just that I know the wild better than most. When the evening was done, the fellas just patted my back and said, ‘We just glad you come out in one piece, boy.’
Things was quiet for a few days till I switch on the news one night and I see the forest family on TV. Chaotic. Drinks was on me and believe me, I had the most. He remained crouched in the bush, observing them. Tightening my grip on my trekking pole, I continued along the path. There was a series of them, just as Stew describe, from tree to tree to tree. Its life has been reduced to being buried in these jar-shaped bromeliads. I spotted the pile of branches Stew had mentioned – where he seen the smoke rising up. Have nothing left to talk bout with them, anyway. I refilled my canteen there. ‘Is t’ing like that gon be the end of me, fellas,’ Stew say, lighting a cigarette. A house to weself.’
When the woman spotted him, he thought she was gonna scamper away. The new places, you have to comb your hair and put on perfume just to get a drink. I take in every word as he describe it. The sun was setting and I was miles away from home, but hell, I remember thinking, I’m alive. So when Stew say he stumble across a house in the middle of the mountain, my ears prick up. Only when I stooped down, I saw and it took a while to register. It was a skull – the skull of a child. ‘Fetch the man some water,’ the old man then said to the two boys. I ordered another round and decided to tell them about the skull. Ten minutes into it, my legs started to wear out and my water canteen was already runnin dry. When the urge comes to beg someone to listen to me, I remind myself of what happened the one time people did in fact listen. Coated in soot and ash. Up ahead was some rocks and a shallow tributary trickling down. This was the kinda tender air one could only experience in the untamed world – the true definition of fresh air.