Priest died on Wednesday. Yes, meager, googly-eyed Priest. We called him ‘Priest.’ I don’t know how he got the name; he certainly had it before I was born or for as long as I can remember. He had it so long no one ever really remembered what his real name was – except Ludy, the woman he lived with for all of their adult lives but never married. Priest said marriage was a “conspiracy to keep TheBlackRace brainwashed,” although he never explained how.
Priest saw everything as a “conspiracy against TheBlackRace,” and would launch into a long tirade admonishing us to beware. None of it really made sense to us back then but that never stopped him. In his more lucid moments he would gather us around the fire in the backyard, boil up some topitambu or peewah for us and tell us stories, mostly fascinating, while we ploughed into the steaming bowls of goodies. We asked him once why he never gave us chataigne, which I loved, and of course he said chataigne was a “conspiracy to keep TheBlackRace down, farting stink and outcast from decent society”. I didn’t care; I loved them anyway. But Priest was adamant.
The day the worst hurricane that ever hit the island came and left a path of destruction in its wake, Priest was liming by the rum shop as per usual, refusing steadfastly to seek the safety of home. He said “Hurricane is one big conspiracy against TheBlackRace to keep us poor, suffering, and dependent on handouts from Massa.” So he stayed at the rum shop downing glass after glass of mountain dew straight. After the hurricane left, they found Priest sprawled off across the rumshop counter in a drunken stupor. The next day, a Guardian reporter interview Priest. He gave them a blow-by-blow commentary on the hurricane – never mind he was barely conscious for most of it. He said he looked the hurricane straight in the eye and fired one every time it tried to toss him up.
“No hurricane goin scare me way!” he explained. “I ain't scared o’ nutten Massa throw at me! They could bring Papa God heself, if they think he white! In fact, if he used to be white back in the day, he ain’t no more for the amount of hard work they make him undergo in this here hot sun, ” he said, “ Yes, back in the day I used to have teeth and a head full o’ jet black hair, too. I was real good lookin – a ladykiller.”
“Yeah me looks does fool people. The reporter lady ask me how old I is – you know how they like to put two commas behind your name with your age in between – like Mr. Priest, 45, . . . like if people ain’t go believe what you do or say if they ain’t see your age along with it. Boy, 12, hit by bus . . . . Franklin Prescott, 32, taken into custody this morning . . . But this time they ask the wrong person. I don’t play that. I explain to she at length that don’t mind how I ain’t have no teeth and how I have all this gray hair, I ain’t that old. Is take I take after me mother; she side o’ the family does always look older than they age, I say, and I give them a broad smile as first hand evidence.”
Well that was the picture that they had plastered on the front page of the Guardian, and since he did not tell them how old he was because he said he would pose for free but they would have to pay to know his age, they wrote ‘Mr. Priest, 50 (he suspect they choose to err on the side of youth so as not to piss him off), rides out the storm.’ Priest became the village superstar after that, at least in his own mind. He carried that newspaper clipping everywhere and was never shy about pulling it, all crumpled and dirty, out of his back pocket, the same one with the petit quart of rum with the label peeling off at the corners, and showing to all and sundry whether they wanted to see it or not. He even had it in the cemetery waving it like a flag when they buried Sailorman’s two year-old daughter, the village’s sole hurricane fatality.
“Man, Priest,” Ludy told him, “Why you don’t put that damn thing away? Nobody trying to see your damn bald-pated mouth this hour.”
Well, Priest sprung forward like a daylight saving clock in April. They had to hold him back from grappling her. It was as though he was a full twenty-something years younger.
“ You lucky I love you,” he said, “Otherwise I woulda give you one confounded kick.” And he swung around and fired his right leg in the air, swiping pure wind as usual. Ludy, accustomed to such grand charges from him, only laughed, and continued what she was doing, humming a calypso.
Apart from Ludy, nobody dared defy Priest. He would fix those large, bulging, unblinking, bloodshot eyes on you and dare you to contradict him. And once you looked away in concession, he would shout, “Heroes of war! Not a man move!” But you couldn’t, even if you wanted to because his eyes had already fixed you in your place.
But where Ludy was concerned, he was no hero. Priest knew it was a losing battle. “Every Napoleon have their Waterloo,” was his theory about the “profound phenomenon” of her hold over him. Yes, Priest knew how to turn on the speechifying when he wanted to impress, although he was not always so careful with in-context usage. He used to tell the fellas that he was a graduate of Joan Hawkins University in The Big Apple.
“You could see you ain’t go to no damn university,” Sarge, the more literate among the fellas used to tell him, “First of all is John Hopkins not Joan Hawkins, and secondly, it in Maryland, not The Big Apple.”
“Hear allyou Johnnies-Come-Lately. Is not yesterday I went there you know. You think I born yesterday like allyou pissin-tail lil fellas? I have clothes older than every last one of you. They move the damn place and change the name after I graduate. Read up some more. Educate yourselves.” And if Ludy was within earshot, she’d let out a long, drawn-out steups and cut her eyes at him. And he would shut up forthwith.
Ludy was a tall, striking woman totally unconscious of her uncommon good looks. If you saw only a head shot of her you would not be able to tell she was a powerfully built woman, at least 5’ 11” and carrying almost 300 lbs. In weight, she outfoxed Priest more than two to one. Ludy’s flesh was tight and supple and did not jiggle, except when she wanted it to. She walked proud, head held high, and back erect, not crouching into herself like some tall people do when they're ashamed of their height. She was a woman in possession of herself; she knew she was tall, and she used it to her advantage. At least a head and a half taller than Priest, she had a way of standing up with her legs planted firmly apart and hands akimbo and looking down at him, letting him know she meant business, wilting him instantly with that hawk-like stare. Whenever people in the village pissed her off, she’d turn around, raise up her dress and shake her backside in their face, which was the worst possible insult even worse than giving people the finger. Priest was not the only one who dared not tangle with her. But it would be no pretty picture to imagine her holding Priest in a headlock or sending him careening with one backhand slap if he only stepped out of line. I always wanted to be like her when I grew up, but I didn’t mind falling short by a couple inches and a whole lot of pounds.
They were the oddest couple imaginable, and yet, there was this glue that held them together. Despite the to-ing and fro-ing, they were thick like molasses. Ludy was a water carrier on the government road works project, the one they used to call PRWP (People’s Road Works Program). She left home at five every morning six days a week and was back home by nine, before Priest even finished that night's dream of a grander tomorrow. Everybody wanted a PRWP job but few were lucky enough to get their names on the list. The haters called Ludy “Lie Down Ludy” because of how they supposed she got her name moved to the top of the list so quickly. But Ludy did not need to beg, bribe, buy, bully, nor bed her way into any job. Her reputation went far and wide so people respected her without her having to ask. In fact, she was getting a job for Priest, too, but he say he did not want “no damn slave work.”
And Priest could beat a cutter like you never heard before. In his more sober moments he played with Sello and the boys for the Best Village Folk Dance troup, but only when he felt so moved. Then he’d tie a red band around his head, fix his eyes on the ceiling, and all you saw were not his hands moving but the swift brown hard-to-follow streak they became as he beat a wicked rhythm on that cutter. And you saw the rivulets of perspiration coursing down his bare scrawny brown chest as he chanted,
“Shango! O lay e-lay a Baba lwa
Shango! O lay e-lay a Baba lwa!”
You could tell he was transformed and in another world where he walked alone but somehow he always kept time and knew to emerge from his trance with a hard toss of his head and instantly wind down when the lead dancer came up and tapped the drum at the close of the dance. He taught all the young players all they knew about beating the cutter. Since he rarely played, we did not get to see that side of him very much. We were more familiar with Priest the philosopher, the preacher, the griot, the sage, the one who was always spouting a homegrown theory on any and everything, all of them firmly grounded in “Massa conspiracy against TheBlackRace.” We liked to listen to him tell stories of profound occurrences simplified for our juvenile consumption.
Wide-eyed we sat around him, our mouths opened to catch every word that fell from his lips. And every so often we would hear Ludy’s voice shouting out from inside,
“Priest, you ain’t tired lying to the people children?”
If they were lies, we did not care; they were nonetheless fascinating, and at nights long after we had been tucked into our beds, we’d lie there reliving those fantasy scenes in our minds. Priest had a way of inserting you into the story without even consciously trying – the voice modulations, the onomatopoeia, the character role assumptions, the hand gestures, the shoulder jerking, the facial contortions and above all, the improvisations, the way he sprang up from his seat and strutted around, sometimes dropping to his knees, or bobbing and weaving or even crawling on all fours or rolling on the ground or crouching as the story demanded.
And now he was gone.
That night, after getting the news, I lay in bed trying to figure out the energy called ‘life force,’ and how it could up and abandon such a vibrant person just so. I was trying to comprehend, despite what I heard on Sundays, where did it go. Did he know that he was dead? Did he see the white light we hear so much about? Or a black one reserved specially for TheBlackRace? Did he resist or did he willingly merge into the mist with a chorus of black angels? And was he reciting poetry and holding them enthralled with his stories? And, above all, how was he managing without the rumshop and without Ludy to keep him in check? I had no answers for any of these mindboggling questions. Somewhere deep within the recesses of my mind, I could not accept that he was no longer with us. There were some people I always expected to be there and he was one of them. I kept hoping to wake up from a confusing dream.
I went to the wake. For one last time, Priest was the center of attraction. I wanted to see him lying there. I felt maybe if I looked at him hard enough he’d get right up and tell me a story. So I elbowed my way through the press of mourners until I stood squarely facing that polished casket with the shiny brass handles. The entire lid was opened, propped up so we could pay our respects. He lay there -- a waxen effigy, with a close-mouthed, stretch-lipped smile plastered across his grey face, skin taut over those high cheekbones. Ludy sat there next to him in a sky-blue dress with red Hibiscus flowers, dry-eyed and looking as powerful as ever, smiling, greeting people, chatting, shaking hands and waving her humungous arm in the direction of food.
Some people were whispering about how she was being disrespectful, but I understood. That was exactly the way Priest would have wanted it. Ludy and I understood him but the undertakers that dressed him didn’t. He was dressed the way he never wanted nor needed to dress in life -- in a black suit, white shirt, crisp turned-down collar and black bow tie. He was clean-shaven and his face seemed powdered and painted. In short, it did not look like Priest. It was not the way he would have wanted to go out. And on top of it they were playing somber, funeral dirges like “Take My Hand Precious Lord” and “Nearer My God to Thee.”
It didn’t seem right somehow. I wanted him to sit up and object to the send-off they were giving him. I expected that at any moment I’d see him spring up, bob and weave, drag off the bow tie and dinner suit and say, “What the hell allyou think it is at all? What the arse is all this kissmearse pappyshow about? And, too besides, stop the damn crocodile tears. Put on some pan and kaiso music. Beat the drums. Hand me that cutter and bring that red piece o' cloth let me tie me head. Bring the mountain dew. Let we fire one for the road.” And after firing one, he’d call everybody to gather around him and tell us one last story –- for the road.
But even though my eyes bored holes into him willing him to wake up, he did not budge. Slowly the realization settled. There’d be no more stories unless we told them ourselves. So, I thought of all the stories he used to tell us. I remembered them all as if I had heard them just yesterday. I smiled at him and assured him that I’d pass them on. I could have sworn he winked at me and blew a whiff of his storytelling spirit my way. I, too, smiled, no longer ill at ease. And even now as I tell of him, I can feel him at my right shoulder winking his approval.
© KPLewis (KalyPsouL)