When I came from classes I found the letter under my door. Matron must have collected it for me. I dump my books on the bed, open the window of my dorm room to let some fresh air in, before throwing myself down on the bed, to read the letter. As I suspected the letter was from my mother. She wanted me to come home for the Easter holidays when the fields would be full of the fragrant white Easter Lilies, those large funnel-shaped flowers that I hadn’t seen much of since living in Kingston. Papa was doing better but still not very well since his stroke, now he was totally confined to bed and could barely speak. He keeps asking about you though, she wrote, always wanting to know when he is going to see his Cassie; you always were your father’s favorite. Then, she added, as-if-it-were-nothing-special, Raymond was home. He’d come all the way from America for the Easter holidays and this time he had come all alone and he let it be known he would be staying for a while. What’s more, he had come by the house to see her, to ask how I was doing and did my mother think I might be coming home from the university any time soon? It seems he’d broken up with the American girl he’d brought home last time he was on the island.I put the letter down quickly. Raymond! After all these years! I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen or heard from him. I hadn’t even been allowed to say goodbye to him when he was leaving the island for school in America what must have been fifteen years ago. Raymond! After all these years!
Back then, it was as if my life was a saucer broken completely in two: what it was before my body started to change and what it became after my body started to change. Because from the moment my breasts started forming, nothing I did was ever right. Mama would quickly loose patience with me and before I knew what was happening she would be shaking me hard to pay attention to one thing or another that she was now forever showing me to do. I was becoming a “woman” now, Mama kept saying, and it was time I learned how to do things around the house, especially in the kitchen.
To peel green bananas, she was standing as tall as a breadfruit tree over me, I was to make a deep cut into the thick green skin of the banana, deep enough to remove the banana’s thick peel, but not too deep into the firm pearly-white flesh of the banana. I should slip two or three fingers under the peel and pull the skin from the bananas without managing to break the banana into a million tiny pieces.
To cook the bananas, she continued, looking at me struggling with the peel, I should wait until the water was boiling-up in the pot before placing the bananas in. If I didn’t wait until the water was boiling-up then the bananas were going to be hard because bananas needed hot water to boil soft in. If I was going to become one of those lazy women who cooked green bananas in its skin, then I was to cut off the tips of both ends of the banana, slit the banana down the length of its back, then drop it into a pot of boiling water with the skin on. I should always remember to put a touch of cooking oil into the water so the peel would not darken the water and blacken the pot.
On and on Mama would go, giving me one instruction after another, while, from the kitchen window, I could hear our neighbor Elizabeth shout to our friend Nadine from up the road: “Statue! Nobody melt you but I!” I so wanted to go outside to play with them, like I’d done every evening before the “thing” started happening to me, before my body started changing, but now I am not allowed to play outside anymore.
And suppose Mama should see me walking home from school with Raymond, like we have been doing forever, Raymond’s bag over my shoulder and my bag over Raymond’s shoulder, both of us laughing and talking and shoving each other, Mama will come tearing down the street like a mad woman and ask me what I think I’m doing, walking home brass-face as I please with a boy like that! Giving Nonsuch people more than a mouthful to talk about!
“But Ma, its only Raymond!” I said to her the first time this happened, Raymond standing there beside me.
She said nothing but began pulling me along by my ears.
All of this would not be happening, I say looking down on myself, if my breasts hadn’t decided to start growing before everyone else’s; if my body hadn’t suddenly decided to start behaving as if it had a mind of its own.
Mama showing me now how to do embroidery and how to do piece work. Mama showing me which herb is good for a bellyache and which herb is good for an upset stomach. Which bush boiled with which bark can cause a man to love you. One day she stopped talking and looked around quickly to make sure no one could hear what she was saying to me. It was a warm Sunday afternoon and we were alone in the back yard. My white school blouses had been washed long ago and were blowing on the line, along with my navy blue tunic and blue school socks. The back yard was swept clean and everything was neat and in order, just the way Mama liked it. Mama reached into the front of her apron and pulled out a beige mushroom-looking plant, “And this–this will make you flow regular.”
Absolute confusion must have spread over my face because she added, “flow regular, you get me chile?”
“No Mama, I don’t understand.”
“Flow re-gu-lar Cassie, as in every month.” She said this last bit in a hurried fearful whisper and I knew she was telling me something to be both feared and worshipped. Something both good and bad. Something that would take me full force into the world of whispers and herbs and monthly “pains”. I sighed. We were back there again. The monthly “thing” that would soon happen to me. This “thing” Mama never fully explained to me, except to say I should be on the look out for it any day now. The “thing” I’d only vaguely heard of before, and did not fully understand. This “thing” I couldn’t wait to happen so “it” would be over and done with.
“Yes Mama,” I answered her finally, “I understand.”
I think life is totally unfair! Totally unfair! For here it is I have two older brothers, Paul and Cranston, who get away with everything and don’t have to learn one God thing! I never see them in the kitchen learning that a spoonful of brown sugar will darken the meat faster and give the stew a nice rich taste. I never see Mama bending over them making sure they scale the parrot-fish correctly, or teaching them how to choose Bay leaves. I still can’t understand why I am the only one expected to learn how to cook and clean and wash. And-as if that wasn’t enough–pick up after my two older brothers too!
And the worst part about the entire situation is that after I have done all of the work–going to the Bay and choosing the parrot or snapper fish for Sunday dinner, arguing with the men over the price like Mama say I should always do, (No matter what price they tell you, you can always get it cheaper!); then taking the fish back home and scaling and gutting them and squeezing lime over them to clear away the raw-scent and stop the flies coming down in droves (The yard will smell something-terrible if you don’t squeeze lime over those fish!); then cutting the fish on both sides and sprinkling salt and black pepper into the cuts and into the cleaned-out gut like Mama says I must always do (You have to learn how to season food properly); then laying the fish into the hot sweet oil by the tail, jumping back so the oil does not splash up and burn my hands or my face or my chest (There is an art to doing the thing!); then going outside and picking the red plummy tomatoes (Make sure you search them for worms!); then picking two or three scotch bonnet peppers (Again, make sure you search them for worms!); then picking okra from the okra tree, (Remember okra trees harbor giant red ants, and that sticky white feathery thing that comes off all over your hands, you have to be careful because nothing scratch like that!); after choosing the best okras, (The firm green ones that snap off easily at the end); then carrying all of this back to the kitchen and chopping everything together, my eyes watering from the onion and escellion that I use to escoveith the fish; after I lift up the cover of the pot where the fish are frying, stepping back from the heat on my face, then getting close again, adding all the seasonings plus some water, then covering the pot and letting everything steam; Mama coming into the kitchen from the room where she is ironing Papa’s shirts, wiping the sweat from her face into her sleeve, a satisfied look on her face; after I have done all of this, grumbling but believing for all my troubles, I will, at least, get first pick of the fish-this, of course, is not what happens.
The biggest fish goes to Papa, which I don’t really have a problem with because he does work very hard in his field all day long. But the next ones go to Cranston and Paul, the two laziest persons on the face of the earth! Then Mama and finally me!
One Sunday Mama must have seen the look on my face and knew what was boiling up inside of my heart, because she asked, “Cassie–why you got that terrible look on your face this nice Sunday evening? Look the wonderful Sunday dinner the Good Lord provide for us, the rice and peas so nice. Why your face must look like that?”
“Not fair!” I mumbled under my breath, throwing Paul and Cranston a terrible look, “Not fair at all!”
“What’s that Cassie?” Mama asked, her voice rising in anger.
“For God’s sake leave the chile alone!” Papa said, “Give her a moment to herself! Let her be! She do more than those two louses in the corner do, just sitting around and waiting to put food in their bellies!”
“You always taking up for her!” Mama said, really angry now.
“Hush woman,” Papa shushed her again, “let me eat this wonderful meal my one and only daughter done prepared for me this Sunday afternoon in peace and quiet. Like I say, she do more than those two worthless creatures who only care about them bellies! Leave the child alone! Let her be!”
In the evenings after dinner Mama force me to sit outside with her on the verandah to-enjoy-the-cool-evening-breeze. I want to tell Mama that last evening when I was coming home from school and had to stop at Ms. Pearl’s shop to shelter from the rain, there was a new lady that I was listening to on the radio call-in show. This lady was saying things like, “In today’s society men must learn to look after themselves in the home like they do in the larger society. Boys need to understand that girls are not there to wash, cook and clean for them!” I want to tell Mama about the tingling sensation that went straight through my body when the lady said that; as if something finally made sense to me. A gap finally closing.
“In addition,” the lady on the radio continued, “mothers need to train their daughters from early on to fend for themselves, to be more aggressive in the larger world like boys are!”
I kept saying the word “aggressive” over and over again. For even though it was the first time I’d heard the word, there was something about it that I liked. The way the word rolled around inside the soft of my mouth; as if it were a new blue marble, hard against the soft pink palate of my mouth.
Mama got up and went inside the house, coming back out with her sewing basket. O Gawd, I groaned under my breath, she is not going to start with that again! Telling me how baff-handed I was because I am always sticking myself with the needle and find the thimble too cumbersome to sew with! That I have been working on the same shirt for months now and-isn’t-it-a-crying-shame I cant finish one little shirt for my brother! What kind of woman was I going to become? Who did I think would seriously marry a woman who couldn’t sew one-little-shirt?
“Mama,” I jumped up quickly, “can I go play with Elizabeth and Nadine just this once? Just for today? I promise I won’t bother you ever again about this, Mama please!”
She looked me straight in my eyes, shook her head very slowly and said, “No Cassie, playing days are over.”
In that moment I felt as if a heavy gray curtain had fallen over my childhood and I was in a different stage of my life. I was clearly no longer a child and was at a place where I was still waiting to become a woman.
First there was a strain across my blouse as if something was pushing up from deep within the walls of my chest. Then there was a gathering of flesh, the tips of which darkened like a wilting dark-red hibiscus flower. At first the tips were very tender and whenever I tried to touch them or if I accidentally brushed against something, my young developing breasts would hurt; they were that sore and tender. I stared and stared at myself in front of the mirror. I was twelve years old; soon I would be thirteen. Earlier in the year a nurse had come at school to talk to all of us girls about what she called our “flowering.”
“You know the field near the river you pass on your way here to school,” the nurse was looking at all of us girls who had gathered in the hall just staring up at her on the lecturn. “The field that for most of the year lie bare and fallow, except, like now, when, after a hard shower of rain, the place is suddenly and entirely covered with white Easter Lilies?”
We all nodded our heads “yes”, because we all knew what she was talking about: the plants that, when in full bloom, produced large funny-shaped blossoms, white in color, with waxy dark green leaves. In soils deficient in some kind of mineral, they became a nice golden yellow color, the Easter Lilies. Yes, we all knew the flowers she was talking about because they were so spectacular when in bloom.
“Well, your bodies now are just like that field two weeks after a hard shower of rain; your bodies are changing and you are all becoming just like those flowers.”
For the rest of the day all I could think about was those flowers, how much like them I was. And that night, my hands began wandering all over my body, between my legs, the sepals and petals of what I instinctively knew was the most beautiful part of my flower. In biology class our teacher had taught us how to gently use our finger tips and nails to open up a hibiscus flower, ever so slightly slitting open the plant; tall thin pistils; thick seeds in the rounded yellow/green ovaries. How surprised I was to see all the things that had been carefully hidden inside of the flower! I was like that flower now, I thought, a soft drowsy feeling coming over me.
After that, I convinced Nadine and Elizabeth to meet up on full moon nights by the river, where we would show off the buds on our chests. In hushed voices we would pull our blouses over our heads and look and look at each other. Without saying a word we would reach over and touch each other, all the time something thick and sickeningly sweet around us. Something that had the moisture and taste of a large brown naseberry.
Somehow Raymond found out about this, and one night when I went to the river who should I see there but Raymond, a bouquet of white Easter Lilies by his feet. None of the other girls had shown up that night.
For the longest time we sat there together, in silence, neither of us saying anything to the other.
“These are for you,” he said finally, handing me the flowers.
I smiled and took the Lilies, knowing full well that I would never be able to take them home. That would start my mother asking too many questions.
Suddenly Raymond looked over at me and got serious. Much too serious. He pulled me close to him. “You’ve become so moody, lately.” He was playing with me, although there was nothing playful about the look in his eyes.
“Moody, nothing!” I replied, laying down in his arms.
It was a clear night with a full pale moon in the blue-black sky. A cool breeze came in off the water and immediately my skin was flushed with goose bumps. Raymond and I looked at each other. He reached down and we started kissing. Soon we were on the ground, Raymond fumbling with the buttons on my shirt. Before long he was staring down at my breasts, the most amazed look in his eyes. He reached down and ran his tongue over the tips of each of my breasts, and I felt something like an electric charge run straight through my body.
“Look at the impression your body made in the grass!” Raymond pointed to where I had been lying down. The female shape my body had made in the damp green grass. Raymond then reached for the bouquet of white lilies and started using the flowers to outline then fill in the curves of the female body-impression in the grass. “What are you doing?” I asked him a couple minutes later, when he was still hard at work.
He did not answer me but kept filling in the body-impression with more and more white petals. When he was done, I gasped. I’d never seen anything like this before; it was quite stunning. It was as if he filled the inside of a female body, my body, with flowers. It looked as if the white Easter lilies were growing out of the soft green bed of a female body.
“You should go to art school!” I told him softly.
“You know I cannot do that! You know I-am-going-to-go-to-America-to-become-a-medical-doctor!”
We were quiet for a while longer before he threw the left-over flowers in the river. We watched as the flowers struggled a bit in the water, before moving swiftly down the river, carried away by the current.
“Come, let’s go” he held out a hand to help me up, but I did not want to go. I just wanted the two of us to stay there all alone by the river, looking and talking about this flower child of a woman that he had created.
I had the dream that night. Something dark and heavy was coming towards me. It had a vague undefined shape, and it kept coming closer and closer, as if it was trying to cover me up. In the past, whereas this dream used to frighten me; it no longer did. It moved very slowly, this purple-blue thing that was now wrapping itself around me, dancing with me, filling me up. It was so slow this thing, almost as if it was molasses that someone was pouring ever so slowly over my body. I was running as hard as I could, and was often out of breath from how fast I running, still this slow-moving dark and sticky thing was catching up to me. Finally I could run no more and lay down, breathless, and watched as it came over and covered me.
Then Mama came home from Bay one afternoon with some ugly black panties. The type that looks more like girdles than panties. When she took them out of the bag I felt certain they must have been for her, or one of her church sisters, since these were the only ones in my mind who would wear such panties. I would never get caught in one of those things. So you can imagine my shock when my mother said, “And these are panties for you, Cassie.”
Was this some kind of joke my mother was playing on me? Surely these could not be the panties she’d pinched me and told me she was going to buy for me? No, these big ugly things could not be for me.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that, they will become useful one day soon, these black panties!”
“Mama” I mentally braced myself for a slap in my face, ” I won’t be wearing those panties anytime soon. I will never be wearing those panties–ever.”
Mama looked at me a long time, then she laughed. “Believe me, one day you will, you will wear these panties.”
The day “it” finally happened I was a tired and restless spirit. There was this horrible tightness in my stomach and I walked around the yard grumbling and mumbling about the simplest of things. I was feeling totally miserable. I’d woken up with a feeling I’d never felt before. It was as if something was gathering, then pulling and tearing inside me; what an awful cramping feeling! From where she was in the back yard Mama kept watching me as I paced back and forth as if I was being ridden by something ancient, strong and terrible. Mama was boiling white clothes in a tin-pan over a roaring wood fire, using a stick to stir the clothes in the pan. And all the time she kept watching me.
“Mama” I said to her finally, “My belly is hurting me in a way it hasn’t hurt me before.”
” You eat anything to give you belly-ache?”
“Your belly ever hurt you just so before?” Her eyes were averted, looking at everything but at me.
“No Mama, not quite like this before. “
The day was too hot, I was thinking, and I was sweating much too much. Yet, at times, despite the heat, I felt cold. My body did not feel like the one I’d lived in for the past thirteen years–the slender dark body Mama always teased me about saying she didn’t know where I came from because both her and my father were big-boned people, look at the two giants I have for brothers, and how small and skinny I was. No, this did not feel at all like my body.
“Come Miss Cass,” Mama was finally looking at me, several different emotions in her eyes and playing across her face. She was looking on me as if I was a brand new person standing there before her. So many different emotions on her face! There was a kind of fierce pride in the way her eyes traveled over my body. Then, swiftly following this, was a look of fear. I was afraid too, sensing the “thing” we’d not-been-talking about for the last couple of months, the “it” was fully upon me. Now I would become one of “them”, one of my mother’s women friends who were sick every month with the “curse”, and who would emerge from their strange sickness talking about the trials and tribulations of being a woman. I wanted to stop what was coming upon me; the wetness now between my legs.
“Its ok, just go in the bathroom and tell me what you see ... Cassie?”
“Anything happen to you yet?”
“Yes Mama” I answered, horrified at the magenta stain in my panty.
Dear Diary, I plan to run away if Mama do not stop her foolishness.
What kind of “foolishness” are you talking about?
You know, all the rules and regulations, all the things I shouldn’t do now that I’m a “woman”.
And how do you know that you are a “woman” now?
Because “the thing” we’ve both been waiting for has finally happened to me.
And does that make you a woman?
Not fully, but in a way it does. It certainly changes your position around here, causes much confusion in the family, and that is why I’m running away.
But where will you run to?
Oh, I don’t know, up to the hills ... live in one of the caves up there. In one of the books I have to reach for school, Escape to Last Man’s Peak, some children did just that.
That’s a fool-fool plan...
Not so, that’s a good plan.
And just how will you live?
I’ll figure something out like the children did in that book.
Have you tried talking to your father at least?
It’s no use, he’s changed too.
Remember how happy he used to be to see me when he came home from work in the evenings? How the first thing he used to do when he came through the gate, even before he dropped his machete was call-out: “Cassie-oh! ...But where, oh where, is my Cassie-oh?” Then I would come tearing out of the house and straight into his arms? Remember how Papa would throw me up in the air and catch me? Then I would search his pockets and find a sweetie, a ripe guava, or a piece of sugar cane he’d brought home especially for me? That’s all ended. Now Papa doesn’t even hug me anymore. He keeps his distance and is forever bothering Mama saying, “I hope you keeping a sharp eye on that girl!”
Well, your brothers, at least ...
Are now idiots too.
Telling me everyday to stay inside the house. Warning me against so much as talking to any of their friends.
Girls come and visit them too you know! And they lock up with the girls in their rooms!
Your mother, she knows about this?
Yes she knows, and I see her smiling when she think I’m not looking, although sometimes she quarrels with them about this and says she doesn’t want any nastiness going on inside of her house.
What does she mean by that?
Oh, you know ... Mama keeps saying she hope that they have money put-down to take care of children.
Well ... Raymond at least?
Has gotten a scholarship to some specialized high school in America.
Well that must have made you very sad...
And the worst of it is that Mama isn’t even letting me say goodbye to him!
Yes, that is bad. Very bad. But you’ll soon get a scholarship and go away to America too. And when Raymond sees just how much more beautiful you are becoming...
I decide to go home for the Easter holidays after all and when the bus pulls into the square Mama is there already, sitting under the piazza and waiting for me. As soon as I come off the bus, she sees me and begins waving wildly. I stand for a moment and just look at her: tall stout woman, very dark, wearing a tangerine-colored dress, her silver-gray hair pulled tight in a bun. I couldn’t lie: I loved the woman. One of my many nieces, Roselle, is with her.
For a while we just stand under the bus shed and hug and touch and kiss each other, my niece with her finger in her mouth. When I finally pull away from my mother, there are tears in both of our eyes. She is right, my dear mother, we really should see more of each other. As soon as I finished my studies at the university, I promise myself, I will take a break and spend some time with both her and papa.
“You still so slender!” She says, pushing me away from her and looking me up and down, taking me in, we see each other so infrequently.
“And Papa, how is he doing?”
“As good as can be expected, I suppose.” She turns away from me, her eyes clouding over. “I told him this morning you were coming and he smiled, which is really a good sign because I can never tell these days whether or not he fully understands what I am saying to him anymore.” Her voice is trembling badly. For the first time I am forced to contemplate how truly difficult this must be for her. She and Papa alone in the house. No one for her to talk to, even after they have been married for so many years.
“We should find a car to take us up to the district,” she is hurrying to get away so I won’t see her crying.
On the bumpy ride up to the district I lean against her, our arms in each others, both of us looking out the window at the greenery all around us. Roselle, who is sitting up front with the driver, is having a ball. She doesn’t get to drive in a car very often and certainly not in the front. She will have so much to tell all her other brothers and sisters and cousins, like so many leaves on a tree, that she has about the district.
“Oh my goodness!” Mama says suddenly, clapping her hand in joy.
” How could I forget such a thing?” For a moment she is a young woman again, a young and excited woman.
“Forget what?” I am glad to see her happy for a moment.
“You’ll never believe who is home, Cassie! Never! Raymond! Raymond is home for the Easter holidays!”
“Mama,” I look at her unbelievably, “you already told me that in a letter!”
“I did?” She looks sheepish, incredulous and only partly innocent.
“Yes, you did!” I laugh and push her.
“But did I tell you he was home alone?”
“Yes, you did!” I shake my head at her.
“But did I tell you he was divorced? Did I tell you he left the American? Did I tell you that he came by the house asking about you?” Her eyes and skin are flushed, she is so excited. Was this really the woman who would’ve killed me when I was younger if I so much as stood close to a boy? I keep looking at her and shaking my head unbelievably.
“And did I tell you how handsome he is that Raymond, and how he talks with a nice American accent? I invited him over for dinner this Sunday, you know! Oh, yes, and he accepted the invitation fast-fast Raymond did, and he is coming for Sunday dinner, this Sunday.”
Oh, these women! These Jamaican women! How hard they were on their young daughters! I remember as an adolescent how hard she was on me! All the rules and regulations to make me into a nice-and-decent-woman! How I had to stay far, far away from boys. They could blighted my future! But now it seemed that everything was reversed. Now it seemed that every other day she was asking me about some or the other fellow. I needed to take my head out of whatever book I was reading. Look up. Show my pretty dark face. This from a woman who had told me when I was thirteen years old to never stop reading; to never stop studying. Education was the key. But now it was, did I plan on becoming an old maid? Did I never plan on getting married? On giving her some grandchildren? I looked at her and shook my head once more. Was this really the same woman I had grown up with?
But just now there was the business of that fellow from America. How many years had it been since I last saw or heard from Raymond? How many times had I thought about him, and that time at the river; him, I, and the Easter Lilies? The truth is, I wanted to see Raymond. I desperately wanted to see him in fact. Was he really the same like Mama said? No, he must have changed. What kind of man had he grown into? Would I be able to talk to him about any and everything like I once used to? But that was years and years ago. His life in the United States, a wife; did he have any American children? So many things I wanted to ask him about. But first I would go by the river and make a bouquet of white Easter Lilies. I would put the bouquet in the center of the table, and watch him, when he came to dinner this Sunday, to see if he would remember.