The whistle blew for eleven o’clock. Throats parched, grim, sun-crazed blacks cutting stone on the white burning hillside dropped with a clang the hot, dust-powdered drills and flew up over the rugged edges of the horizon to descent into a dry, waterless gut. Hunger—pricks at stomachs inured to brackish coffee and cassava pone—pressed on folk, joyful as rabbits in a grassy ravine, wrenching themselves free of the lure of the white earth. Helter-skelter dark, brilliant, black faces of West Indian peasants moved along, in pain—the stiff tails of blue denim coats, the hobble of chigger-cracked heels, the rhythm of a stride dissipating into the sun-stuffed void the radiant forces of the incline.
The broad road—a boon to constables moping through the dusk or on hot, bright mornings plowing up the thick, adhesive marl on some seasonal chore, was distinguished by a black, animate dot upon it.
It was Coggins Rum. On the way down he had stopped for a tot—zigaboo word for tin cup—of water by the rock engine. The driver, a buckra johnny—English white—sat on the waste box scooping with a fork handle the meat out of a young water coconut. An old straw hat, black, and its rim saggy by virtue of the moisture of sweating sun-fingers, served as a calabash for a ball of “cookoo”—corn meal, okras and butter stewed—roundly poised in its crown. By the buckra’s side, a black girl stood, her lips pursed in an indifferent frown, paralyzed in the intense heat.
Passing by them Coggins’ bare feet kicked up a cloud of the white marl dust and the girl shouted, “Mistah Rum, you gwine play de guitah tee nite, no?” Visions of Coggins—the sky a vivid crimson or blackly star-gemmed—on the stone step picking the guitar, picking it “with all his hand.…”
Promptly Coggins answered, “Come down and dance de fango fo’ Coggins Rum and he are play for you.”
Bajan gal don’t wash ‘ar skin
Till de rain come down.…
Grumblings. Pitch-black, to the “washed-out” buckra she was more than a bringer of victuals. The buckra’s girl. It wasn’t Sepia, Georgia, but a backwoods village in Barbados. “Didn’t you bring me no molasses to pour in the rain-water?” the buckra asked, and the girl, sucking in her mouth, brought an ungovernable eye back to him.
Upon which Coggins, swallowing a hint, kept on his journey—noon-day pilgrimage—through the hot creeping marl.
Scorching—yet Coggins gayly sang:
Wit’ yo’ cakes an’ yo’ drinks
Ev’y collection boy ovah death!—
An’ we go to wah—
We shall carry de name,
Bajan boys for—evah!
“It are funny,” mused Coggins, clearing his throat, “Massa Braffit an’ dat chiggah-foot gal.…”
He stopped and picked up a fern and pressed the back of it to his shiny ebon cheek. It left a white ferny imprint. Grown up, according to the ethics of the gap, Coggins was yet to it a “queer saht o’ man,” given to the picking of a guitar, and to cogitations, on the step after dark—indulging in an avowed juvenility.
Drunk with the fury of the sun Coggins carelessly swinging along cast an eye behind him—more of the boys from the quarry—overalled, shoeless, caps whose peaks wiggled on red, sun-red eyes … the eyes of the black sunburnt folk.
He always cast an eye behind him before he turned off the broad road into the gap.
Flaring up in the sun were the bright new shingles on the Dutch-style cottage of some Antigua folk. Away in a clump of hibiscus was a mansion, the color of bilgy water, owned by two English dowager maidens. In the gap rockstones shot up—obstacles for donkey carts to wrestle over at dusk. Rain-worms and flies gathered in muddy water platoons beside them.
“Yo’ dam vagabond yo’!”
He paused, and gathered up the blind member. “Isn’t this a hell of a case fo’ yo’, sah?” A curve of flesh began to peel from it. Pree-pree-pree. As if it were frying. Frying flesh. The nail jerked out of place, hot, bright blood began to stream from it. Around the spot white marl dust clung in grainy cakes. Now, red, new blood squirted—spread over the whole toe—and the dust became crimson.
Gently easing the toe back to the ground, Coggins avoided the grass sticking up in the road and slowly picked his way to the cabin.
“I stump me toe,” he announced, “I stump me toe … woy … woy.”
“Go bring yo’ pappy a tot o’ water … Ada … quick.”
Dusky brown Sissie took the gored member in her lap and began to wipe the blood from it.
“Pappy stump he toe.”
“Dem rocks in de gap…”
“Mine ain’t got better yet, needer…”
“Hurry up, boy, and bring de lotion.”
“Bring me de scissors, an’ tek yo’ fingers out o’ yo’ mout’ like yo’ is starved out! Hey, yo’, sah!”
“… speakin’ to you. Big boy lik’ yo’ suckin’ yo’ fingers.…”
Zip! Onion-colored slip of skin fluttered to the floor. Rattah Grinah, the half-dead dog, cold dribbling from his glassy blue eyes on to his freckled nose, moved inanimately towards it. Fox terrier … shaggy … bony … scarcely able to walk.
“Wha’ yo’ dey?”
“Wha’ yo’ doin’ outside?”
“Answer me, girl!”
“… Hey, yo’ miss, answer yo’ pappy!”
“Hard-ears girl! She been eatin’ any mo’ marl, Sissie?” “She, Ada?”
“Sho’, gal eatin’ marl all de haftahnoon.…”
Pet, sugar—no more terms of endearment for Beryl. Impatient, Coggins, his big toe stuck up cautiously in the air—inciting Rattah to indolent curiosity—moved past Sissie, past Ada past Rufus to the rear of the cabin.
Yesterday, at noon … a roasting sun smote Coggins, Liquid … fluid … drought. Solder. Heat and juice of fruit … juice of roasting cashews.
It whelmed Coggins. The dry season was at its height. Praying to the Lord to send rain, black peons gathered on the rumps of breadfruit or cherry trees in abject supplication.
Crawling along the road to the gap, Coggins gasped at the consequences of the sun’s wretched fury. There, where canes spread over with their dark rich foliage into the dust-laden road, the village dogs, hunting for eggs to suck, fowls to kill, paused amidst the yellow stalks of cork-dry canes to pant, or drop, exhausted, sun-smitten.
The sun had robbed the land of its juice, squeezed it dry. Star apples, sugar apples, husks, transparent on the dry sleepy trees. Savagely prowling through the orchards, blackbirds stopped at nothing.… Turtle doves rifled the pods of green peas and purple beans and even the indigestible Brazilian bonavis. Potato vines, yellow as the leaves of autumn, severed from their roots by the pressure of the sun, stood on the ground, the wind’s eager prey. Undug, stemless—peanuts, carrots—seeking balm, relief, the caress of a passing wind, shot dead unlustered eyes up through sun-etched cracks in the hard, brittle soil. The sugar corn went to the birds. Ripening prematurely, breadfruits fell swiftly on the hard naked earth, half ripe, good only for fritters.… Fell in spatters … and the hungry dogs, elbowing the children, lapped up the yellow-mellow fruit.
His sight impaired by the livid sun, Coggins turned hungry eyes to the soil. Empty corn stalks … blackbirds at work.…
Along the water course, bushy palms shading it, frogs gasped for air, their white breasts like fowls, soft and palpitating. The water in the drains sopped up, they sprang at flies, mosquitoes … wrangled over a mite.
It was a dizzy spectacle, and the black peons were praying to God to send rain. Coggins drew back.…
Asking God to send rain … why? Where was the rain? Barreled up there in the clouds? Odd! Invariably, when the ponds and drains and rivers dried up they sank on their knees asking God to pour the water out of the sky.… Odd … water in the sky.…
At the quarry it became whiter and the color of dark things generally grew darker. Similarly, with white ones—it gave them a whiter hue. Coggins and the quarry. Coggins and the marl. Coggins and the marl road.
Beryl in the marl road. Six years old; possessing a one-piece frock, no hat, no shoes.
Brown Beryl … the only one of the Rum children who wasn’t black as sin. Strange … Yellow Beryl. It happens that way sometimes. Both Coggins and Sissie were unrelievably black. Still Beryl came a shade lighter. “Dat am nuttin’,” Sissie had replied to Coggins’ intimately naive query, “is yo’ drunk dat yo’ can’t fomembah me sistah-in-law what had a white picknee fo’ ’ar naygeh man? Yo’ don’t fomembah, no?” Light-skinned Beryl.…
It happens that way sometimes.
Victim of the sun—a bright spot under its singeing mask—Beryl hesitated at Coggins’ approach. Her little brown hands flew behind her back.
“Eatin’ marl again,” Coggins admonished, “eatin’ marl again, you little vagabon’!”
On the day before he had had to chastise her for sifting the stone dust and eating it.
“You’re too hard ears,” Coggins shouted, slapping her hands, “you’re too hard ears.”
Coggins turned into the gap for home, dragging her by the hand. He was too angry to speak … too agitated.
Avoiding the jagged rocks in the gap, Beryl, her little body lost in the crocus bag frock jutting her skinny shoulders, began to cry. A gulping sensation came to Coggins when he saw Beryl crying. When Beryl cried, he felt like crying, too.…
But he sternly heaped invective upon her. ‘‘Marl’ll make yo’ sick … tie up yo’ guts, too. Tie up yo’ guts like green guavas. Don’t eat it, yo’ hear, don’t eat no mo’ marl.…”
No sooner had they reached home than Sissie began. “Eatin’ marl again, like yo’ is starved out,” she landed a clout on Beryl’s uncombed head. “Go under de bed an’ lay down befo’ I crack yo’ coconut.…”
Running a house on a dry-rot herring bone, a pint of stale, yellowless corn meal, a few spuds, yet proud, thumping the children around for eating scraps, for eating food cooked by hands other than hers … Sissie.…
“Don’t talk to de child like dat, Sissie.”
“Oh, go ’long you, always tryin’ to prevent me from beatin them. When she get sick who gwine tend she? Me or you? Man, go ’bout yo’ business.”
Beryl crawled meekly under the bed. Ada, a bigger girl— fourteen and “ownwayish”—shot a look of composed neutrality at Rufus—a sulky, cry-cry, suck-finger boy nearing twenty—Big Head Rufus.
“Serve she right,” Rufus murmured.
“Nobody ain’t gwine beat me with a hairbrush. I know dat.” One leg on top of the other, Ada, down on the floor, grew impatient at Sissies languor in preparing the food.…
Coggins came in at eleven to dinner. Ada and Rufus did likewise. The rest of the day they spent killing birds with stones fired from slingshots; climbing neighbors’ trees in search of bird nests; going to the old French ruins to dig out, with the puny aid of Rattah Grinah, a stray mongoose or to rob of its prize some canary-catching cat; digging holes in the rocky gap or on the brink of drains and stuffing them with paper and gunpowder stolen from the Rum canister and lighting it with a match. Dynamiting! Picking up hollow pieces of iron pipe, scratching a hole on top of them, towards one end, and ramming them with more gunpowder and stones and brown paper, and with a pyramid of gunpowder moistened with spit for a squib, leveling them at snipes or sparrows. Touch bams.
“Well, Sissie, what yo’ got fo’ eat today?”
“Cookoo, what yo’ think Ah are have?”
“Lawd, mo’ o’ dat corn mash. Mo’ o’ dat prison gruel. People would t’ink a man is a horse!” … a restless crossing of scaly, marl-white legs in the corner.
“Any salt fish?”
“Wha’ Ah is to get if from?”
“You t’ink I must be pick up money. Wha’ you expect mah to get it from, wit’ butter an’ lard so dear, an’ sugar four cents a pound. Yo’ must be expect me to steal.”
“Well, I ain’t mean no harm.…”
“Hey, this man muss be crazy. You forget I ain’t workin’ ni, yo’ forget dat I can’t even get water to drink, much mo’ grow onions or green peas. Look outside. Look in the yard. Look at the parsley vines.”
Formerly things grew under the window or near the tamarind trees, fed by the used water or the swill, yams, potatoes, lettuce.…
Going to the door, Coggins paused. A “forty-leg” was working its way into the craw of the last of the rum hens. “Lahd a’ massie.…” Leaping to the rescue, Coggins slit the hen’s craw—undigested corn spilled out—and ground the surfeited centipede underfoot.
“Now we got to eat this,” and he strung the bleeding hen up on a nail by the side of the door, out of poor Rattah Grinah’s blinking reach.…
Unrestrained rejoicing on the floor.
Coggins ate. It was hot—hot food. It fused life into his body. It rammed the dust which had gathered in his throat at the quarry so far down into his stomach that he was unaware of its presence. And to eat food that had butter on it was a luxury. Coggins sucked up every grain of it.
“Rufus, tek this.”
“Where is dat Miss Beryl?”
“Under de bed, m’m.”
Unweeping, Beryl, barely saving her skull, shot up from underneath the bed. Over Ada’s obstreperous toes, over Rufus by the side of Coggins, she had to pass to get the proffered dish.
“Take it quick!”
Saying not a word, Beryl took it and, sliding down beside it, deposited it upon the floor beside Coggins.
“You mustn’t eat any more marl, yo’ hear?” he turned to her. “It will make yo’ belly hard.”
“Yes … Pappy.”
Throwing eyes up at him—white, shiny, appealing—
Drying the bowl of the last bit of grease, Coggins was completely absorbed in his task. He could hear Sissie scraping the iron pot and trying to fling from the spoon the stiff, overcooked corn meal which had stuck to it. Scraping the pan of its very bottom, Ada and Rufus fought like two mad dogs.
“You, Miss Ada, yo’ better don’t bore a hole in dat pan, gimme heah!”
“But, Mahmie, I ain’t finish.”
Picking at her food, Beryl, the dainty one, ate sparingly.…
Once a day the Rums ate. At dusk, curve of crimson gold in the sensuous tropic sky, they had tea. English to a degree, it was a rite absurdly regal. Pauperized native blacks clung to the utmost vestiges of the Crown. Too, it was more than a notion for a black cane hole digger to face the turmoil of a hoe or fork or “bill”—zigaboo word for cutlass—on a bare cup of molasses coffee.
“Lahd ’a’ massie.…”
“Wha’ a mattah, Coggins?”
“Say something, no!”
“Massie, come hay, an’ see de gal picknee.”
“… open yo’ mout’ no, what’s a mattah?”
“Get up, Beryl, get up, wha’ a mattah, sick?”
“Lif’ she up, pappy.”
“Yo’ move out o’ de way, Mistah Rufus befo’…
“Don’t, Sissie, don’t lick she!”
“Gal playin’ sick! Gal only playin’ sick, dat what de mattah wit’ she. Gal only playin’ sick. Get up yo’ miss!”
“God—don’t, Sissie, leave she alone.”
“Go back, every dam one o’ yo’, all yo’ gwine get in de way.”
Beryl, little naked brown legs apart, was flat upon the hard, bare earth. The dog, perhaps, or the echo of some fugitive wind had blown up her little crocus bag dress. It lay like a coconut flapjack on her stomach.…
“Bring she inside, Coggins, wait I gwine fix de bed.”
Mahogany bed … West Indian peasants sporting a mahogany bed; canopied with a dusty grimy slice of cheesecloth.…
Coggins stood up by the lamp on the wall, looking on at Sissie prying up Beryl’s eyelids.
“Open yo’ eyes … open yo’ eyes … betcha the little vagabon’ is playin’ sick.”
Indolently Coggins stirred. A fist shot up—then down. “Move, Sissie, befo’ Ah hit yo’.” The woman dodged.
“Always wantin’ fo’ hit me fo’ nuttin’, like I is any picknee.”
“… anybody hear this woman would think.…”
“I ain’t gwine stand for it, yes, I ain’t gwine.…”
Shut up, yo’ old hard-hearted wretch! Shut up befo’ I tump yo down! … Swept aside, one arm in a parrying attitude … backing, backing toward the larder over the lamp.…
Last year Rufus, the sickliest of the lot, had had the measles and the parish doctor had ordered her to tie a red piece of flannel around his neck.…
She stuffed the red flannel into Coggins’ hand. “Try dat,” she said, and stepped back.
Brow wrinkled in cogitation, Coggins—space cleared for action—denuded the child. “How it ah rise! How er belly a go up in de year!”
Bright wood; bright mahogany wood, expertly shellacked and laid out in the sun to dry, not unlike it. Beryl’s stomach, a light brown tint, grew bit by bit shiny. It rose; round and bright, higher and higher. They had never seen one so none of them thought of wind-filling balloons. Beryl’s stomach resembled a wind-filling balloon.
“She too hard ears,” Sissie declared, “she won’t lissen to she pappy, she too hard ears.”
Dusk came. Country folk, tired, soggy, sleepy, staggering in from “town”—depressed by the market quotations on Bantam cocks—hollowed howdy-do to Coggins, on the stone step, waiting.
Rufus and Ada strangely forgot to go down to the hydrant to bathe their feet. It had been passion with Coggins. “Nasty feet breed disease,” he had said. “You Mistah Rufus, wash yo’ foot befo’ yo’ go to sleep. An’ yo’, too, Miss Ada, I’m speaking to yo’, gal, yo’ hear me? Tak’ yo’ mouth off o’ go ’head, befo’ Ah box it off.…”
Inwardly glad of the escape, Ada and Rufus sat not by Coggins out on the stone step, but down below the cabin, on the edge of a stone overlooking an empty pond, pitching rocks at the frog and crickets screaming in the early dusk.
The freckled-face old buckra physician paused before the light and held up something to it…
“Marl … marl … dust.…”
It came to Coggins in swirls. Autopsy. Noise comes in swirls. Pounding, pounding—dry Indian corn pounding. Ginger. Ginger being pounded in a mortar with a bright, new pestle. Pound, pound. And. Sawing. Butcher shop. Cow foot is sawed that way. Stew—or tough hard steak. Then the drilling—drilling—drilling to a stone cutter’s ears. Ox grizzle. Drilling into ox grizzle.…
“Too bad, Coggins,” the doctor said, “too bad, to lose yo’ dawtah.…”
In a haze it came to Coggins. Inertia swept over him. He saw the old duffer climb into his buggy, tug at the reins of his sickly old nag and slowly drive down the rocky gap and disappear into the night.
Inside, Sissie, curious, held things up to the light. “Come,” she said to Coggins, “and see what ’im take out a’ ’ar. Come an’ see de marl.…”
And Coggins slowly answered, “Sissie—if yo’ know what is good fo’ yo’self, you bes’ leave dem stones alone.”