Whap! Whap! Whap! He swings his stick and curses at the unseen. Children following him chanting, “Mad Henry!” scatter in all directions.
Henry cuts a frightful figure – long matted da-da hair and beard, discolored skin caked over in layers of grime, tattered shirt and kapra black with age-old dirt, eyes wild and unfocussed. His rancor precedes him. Daddy Bouchon, they call him, the village booboo man. In moments of clarity he remembers a happier time and yearns for its return. But these demons won’t leave him alone, especially today, the anniversary of her passing, the day he took an about-turn into insanity. Today, he knows he’ll have to fight for his life. “Gwan, Gwan, I say!”
Yul-mother passes him on her way from Sunday market, laden basket in her right hand. Landy, her three-year-old son, clings to her skirt, half-stumbling half-running to keep up with her bigger, more efficient steps. In his hand swings an almost empty brown paper bag. Landy turns around to gawk and point a pudgy finger at Mad Henry. “Mammy, what ith that?” he lisps.
“Not what, child, who,” she corrects him. “That is Daddy Bouchon, child. Shh! And stop pointing.” She slaps his hand down. “Have some manners, you hear.”
Yul-mother, flourishing in the prime of her full-bosomed, red-lipped, tight-waisted womanhood, swishes her voluptuous hips, and flounces her dresstail as she whips around to continue on her way home. With Landy trailing after her, still see-sawing the bag, she nods “Good Morning” to Henry. It’s no secret she once harbored fantasies about him. But Henry Cephas had eyes only for Shanti. If he recognizes her now, he offers no sign, let alone a kindred response. Yul-mother sighs and says to Landy, “Child, mind the damn paper bag fall.”
Landy loses his grip on the bag and it sails to the ground, missing a mud puddle by a wisp. “Mammy, Mammy! The damn paper bag fall!” he cries, hastily blessing himself with a sign of the cross, bracing for the clout upside the head he knows for sure will follow.
Yul-mother, arms akimbo, assumes a battleaxe stance, ready to do what she does best – cuss. But one look at Landy, his eyes wide with fright, trembling as tears spill over and run down his snot-caked face, biting the end of his striped jersey, and her body begins to shake as a ripping peal of laughter dislodges it from its usual Bacchanalian moorings.
It is the same sense of humor that was her refuge when Yul-father left her two years ago for the sixteen-year old Indian girl, same age as Yul was at the time. “What to do?” She shakes her head. “ If you ain’t laugh you going cry or go mad. You ain’t see Henry? Is life worries that have that boy so.” She picks up the bag and hands it back to Landy. “Child,” her voice, tinged with weariness is softer, gentler, “is the paper bag, not the damn paper bag. Don’t mind me.”
Wiping his face with her dress-hem, she is, for once, magnanimous in bestowing such an unaccustomed act of tenderness upon this, the last of her stringband of six children, Yul being the first. Landy breathes a sigh of relief. She grips his hand and, as if upbraiding herself for her one moment of weakness, hauls his little tail up the road and around the corner into Monroe Street .
“Papayo!” Henry thinks even in his madness. “That is real woman. Tough, this Yul-mother, but sweet and soul-pleasing like Mother’s coconut drops. Man, if it wasn’t for Leela . . ..”
He was once like Landy, spunky and alive with wonder. He recalls speeding through their house, chasing his brother Winfield, tripping over his father’s outstretched legs as he sat in the recliner reading The Guardian.
His father folded away the paper, and said, “Come here, boy!”
Wondering what he had done wrong, he approached dreading like Landy some kind of unspeakable punishment.
“What’s your name?” his father asked in his strident, commanding tone.
“Your full name. And hold your head up when you speak it, boy!”
“Henry Cudjoe Nathaniel Cephas,” he said louder.
“I can’t hear you, boy!”
“Henry Cudjoe Nathaniel Cephas!” he bellowed, letting his shout begin deep in his belly, then gather steam and rise until it emerged bulging with pride in who he was.
“That’s more like it. Your name is your power. Never forget that. And don’t let anybody tell you different. Now go and play.”
He sped off.
There are times when he remembers who he is, but those moments never last very long. He used to be exuberant, full of swagger, handsome in his own rugged, buttoned-down way, a lady-killer -- but only Shanti occupied his dreams. He wants to savor the sweetest memories of her, but his mind is too addled. It hurts to think, especially of her.
“Steups!” He picks up his bag, slings it over his shoulder and continues walking, admonishing his tormentors to desist. Not the children -- the others. And they are many.
There’s nagging Nani, the old Hindi granny with the high-pitched voice, and Tuco with his rapid-fire Spanish-spouting Zapata styling. And Lord, that Leela is one saucy little sexpot,
always teasing him, getting him all riled and ready, then leaving him to sleep frustrated and alone in his bed of leaves under the poui tree. She comes and cradles him, quivering and afraid, when thunder claps and lightning strikes. She laughs at his painful discomfort, and later at his obvious arousal.
“One of these days, huh,” he swears, “I going catch a hold of that girl and show her where barley grow.”
But newcomer Erse, a badjohn, a mean stickfighter from the longtime kalinda days, challenges Henry to a mortal duel. Drums roll, and chantuelles strike up the chorus in the background,
“Mooma, Mooma, your son in the grave already
Your son in the grave already
Take a towel and band your belly”
Henry could wield a bois and hold his own, but he ain’t no seasoned batonier. Never set foot in a gayelle ring before. “Gwan!”
But Erse insists. “An eye for an eye today.”
Henry knows he’s not joking. He keeps Erse at bay long enough to pause in front of Number 18. He knows this shop. He gathers his bravado and enters the gate walking backward, flailing the air as he goes. “Gwan! You ain’t hear I say don’t follow me?”
Augustine Cephas, tall, lean, bald but for a narrowing band of grey hair, yet still as handsome as ever with his even chocolate coloring, aquiline nose, and thin, chiseled lips, is
leaning on the counter, watching Henry as he approaches. Goatboy and Yellows, liming as always in the shop, abandon their post atop a stack of rice bags, and beat a hasty retreat, ducking to avoid bus head.
“Coz, “ Gus Cephas addresses Henry, “Coconut drop as usual?”
Henry, in this brief bout of sanity, nods in the direction of a raisin-studded cocount drop reposing in the glass case along with some turnovers, sweetheart-cakes, currant-rolls, and a couple of unrelenting flies. One solitary coconut drop – exactly like the ones into which his mother used to fold her love for him. They warmed his insides and gave him a sense of well-being.
“With a Sanana Bolo, right?” Gus Cephas straightens up, dusting the flour from the counter off his elbows. He bends over to retrieve a Banana Solo from the icebox, groaning as if the utterance could ease the strain of flexing and spring his sixty-year-old back upward again. He
snaps off the cap and hands the bottle to Henry who puts it to his head, finishes its contents in one long gulp, then wolfs down the coconut drop and nods his satisfaction.
Gus shakes his head. He feels for this man. Both he and Henry are Cephases from Sauteurs, Grenada, and he cannot let a cousin, however distant, go hungry. But his fiery Cocoa-
Panyol madam, Anita, flying out of the house in her red rubber slippers, buttoning up her blue floral dustercoat, parading a million toilet paper rolls in her hair, is having none of it.
“Gus Cephas! What the hell is wrong with you at all? Since when you is Father Christmas? Why you ain’t give away the whole blasted shop and done?”
Gus mumbles something about family.
“Family, my arse!”she says. “Mad Henry paying for he sins. He kill the people girl child -- the same one he say he love.”
“He ain’t kill she; she drink Gramoxone because of she family.”
“But is he fault, so let him pay. Madness is he salvation. And, besides, you can’t save he; you ain’t no blasted Jesus Christ.”
Somewhere from within Henry’s submerged self, comprehension surges. This is Cousin Gus, a man who plants himself firmly between him and death and pushes against the walls of starvation that threaten to crush him. For that he is grateful.
“God bless you, Coz!” he mutters. He hefts his crocus bag unto his shoulder and turns to leave.
“God?” Anita says, her wry laugh making the name sound like a cuss-word. “Oh, so is God now? What the arse he know bout God, eh?”
“Anita, why you so damn cantankerous? Leave the man let him be, nuh.”
Henry continues down St. John Street, with Erse hot in pursuit. The road stretches before him -- a blistering ribbon of hot asphalt and crater-sized potholes. By some miracle, he
escapes injury, his thickened soles their own protection. Henry walks daily, barefooted, seven miles to the banks of the Caroni River only to spit in it, they say, and walk the seven miles back home. He wonders if they are right. He just follows Leela. The others harrass him, but she protects him from them. She loves him. Like Shanti did.
Shanti was a skinny girl with smooth, ochre skin and eyes that planted themselves in his soul from the first moment they looked at him. When they attended Pamphillian High together, she was one hot-blooded little mamma. The first time he kissed her, she kissed him right back, pulling his face closer to hers, running her fingers through his hair, carressing his neck, his shoulders. It was he who pushed her away before they lost all control. He knew then that he had to have her. And it was right there under the same poui tree that is now his home that she opened her soul to receive him that first time, shuddering and gasping, wrapping her legs around him to draw him deeper into her essence and hold him there forever.
The only daughter of devout Hindu parents, she had two older brothers dedicated to maintaining the family’s racial purity and preserving the integrity of the Boodhansingh name, as if they alone had a name to preserve. He recollects when they chased him from Cemetery Street, where they lived, all the way up Tunapuna Road, brandishing cutlasses with razor-sharp blades that looked all the more menacing in the afternoon sun. He remembers praying like he was the abbot up Mount St. Benedict himself. If it wasn’t for God, crapaud would have smoked his pipe that day.
At first, it didn’t bother Shanti at all. She didn’t care that he was an unapologetic undiluted descendant of African slaves. She loved him and he loved her. It was the one thing that was real to her. Until they decided to arrange bamboo wedding for her to old man Pancham with his wheezing, lazy-eyed, big-bellied self. She drank that weedkiller -- didn’t even say goodbye to Henry. Then the family turned around and blamed him.
Henry crosses the Main Road then the Highway and cuts across the open field behind Hi-way Drive-in. Through some housing settlements with makeshift temples, effigies of many-limbed deities and colored pooja flags, he negotiates miles of canefields. When cars honk, he moves over into the grass. An oxen dray trundles by, splashing water on him. The little Indian boy, standing atop the cart, flays the animals with his whip more to test his budding machismo than to keep them in line. Henry swears at the oxen and the boy.
He pauses to chase Erse away. “Gwan! Gwan!” He motions with his stick. His feet ache but he has to keep going.
“Leela, girl, why we have to do this every day?”
“It ain’t far again, dou-dou,” she says.
“Girl, why you does tease me so?”
“Ain’t you love me?” she asks, her voice dripping coquetry. “Ain’t you like it when we lie down together?”
He moans and inhales deeply her intoxicating perfume. She dances before him, winding her filmy red sari around her body, exposing every curve. With movements calculated to seduce, she beckons to him while hovering just beyond his grasp.
“Today is we day.” She lets the sari slip off her shoulder. “I promise.”
He quickens his step, stopping only to shoo Erse or reprimand Tuco.
“Go find a lil senorita. This dulahin is mine.” Whap! Whap! “Gwan!” Noone is going to stop him from enjoying this special moment with Leela.
“We reach,” Leela announces after another few miles.
On the left bank of the Caroni River, he unslings his bag, dropping it where she indicates. But wait. Ain’t this where they cremate Shanti? He sees her lying regal in death on the wooden pyre, wrapped in yellow muslin, a red bindi in the center of her forehead, hands clasped as if in prayer. He watches the flames consume his Shanti until she is no more. Seven years today. After that they say lingering souls must leave. Time to let her go.
He steps to the edge of the river to spit and watch fascinated as it floats away and merges with the horizon as usual.
But Leela, laughing, wades out into the murky water and calls to him, “Come, me jhaaji bhai, take a lil swim with me, nuh!”
With bois raised, Erse carrays in glee.
“Mooma, Mooma! Your son in the grave already.”
“Yes, Beta, gwan!” Nani eggs him on. Erse prods him, shoving him forward with his bois. Tassas tremble.
Henry, ragged clothing and all, plunges in. Leela begins to undress, flinging her garments to the wind as she moves farther from shore. Henry cannot swim but his desire for her drives away his fear. The drums beat faster; the singing accelerates as he follows.
“ Your son in the grave already.”
Suddenly, the bottom drops from beneath his feet, and the swollen Caroni sucks him into its eddying undertow. He disappears from view. Moments later, he resurfaces sputtering, gagging, choking, struggling for breath, gulping as much air as he can before he goes under again. He hears her jubilant laughter, their victory cries.
“Take a towel and band your belly.”
A thousand Shantis circle him, taunting, chanting, rejoicing in frenzied ecstasy.
“Shanti? Is you?”
“Yes, is me. You coming with me today!” she shrieks.
“Your son in the grave already.”
“Stay away from me. You dead.”
She strips her skeletal visage of its fleshy mask.
“Take a towel and band your belly.”
“And soon you going be, too,” she says. “You nothing without me. Look at you! You don’t even know who you is.”
“ Mooma, Mooma!”
He cries out, the fever raging in his brain. His father’s compelling voice invades Henry’s consciousness, “Tell them who you are, son! Say it!”
Henry shouts his name. Loud. Clear. Again. All at once, the drums stop. The chanting ceases. Shanti vanishes. The others, too.
He is still screaming when he comes to, spitting brown river water and green phlegm up into the face of the fisherman who dives in to rescue him, pumping his chest until he responds. A crowd gathers, chanting, “Mad Henry! Daddy Bouchon!”
Henry sits upright, puffs his chest and informs them, “Henry Cudjoe Nathaniel Cephas to all you. And Mister, if you please.”
He repeats his name in wonderment. Power.
They transport him to St Joseph’s Hospital. They bathe him. Brush teeth. Trim. Shave. They bring him food. Drink. Clean Pajamas. Blanket. Pillow. Real bed. They keep him overnight for observation. They decide to release him to Next-of-Kin. Over Anita’s objections, Gus comes to claim him.
A few months later, on Christmas Eve, Henry, buttoned-down and handsome once again, sits on the verandah playing cards with Gus while Kitchener’s “Drink a Rum,” blares from the Redifusion radio. All lipsticked, rouged and dolled-up, Anita, singing “. . . and a ponche-a-
crema, drink a rum,” fusses over them, strutting and primping like a frizzle fowl, bringing them black cake, pastelles, sorrel, ginger-beer.
“Nayb!”A woman’s smooth, sultry call sidelines Kitch.
Anita runs to the gate and shouts, “Henry! Yul-mother come to you.”
Gus nudges Henry. “Ah, boy, like your ship just come in.”
Henry drapes himself over the gate, his face inches from Yul-mother’s.
“I not coming in,”she says. “I just come to bring you some coconut drops I bake. I know how much you like them. “
“Not as much as I like you,” he tells her.
His eyes hold hers. She blushes and looks away. “Merry Christmas, Henry!”
“Thanks much, and Merry Christmas to you, too,’’ he says, taking the bag from her. Their fingers touch. “Yul-mother . . . I could come visit sometimes?”
“Call me Hazel.” Her tone is mellow. “Hazel Serrette is me name, remember? And yes, you could come by anytime you want.”
He likes how she makes a lovesong of the word “anytime,” stretching it out until it slips and slides and glides like sexy silky lingerie.
“See you tomorrow, Hazel.”
Henry watches her walk away, appreciating her rhythmic bumsee-roll. Fortified by her tasty coconut drops, he humbles Gus in four more games of rummy. Hazel. Hazel Serrette Cephas. Sounds like music to him.