Conjunctions:27 The Archipelago: New Caribbean Writing

Axe and Anancy
Red Head got his name and visionary capacity at age nine when he ran behind an uncle chopping wood and caught the back of the axe on his forehead. His uncle, Beanstalk, feeling the reverberations of a soft wood as it yielded to the blade he’d swung back, looked over his shoulder and saw his favourite nephew half-run, half-walk in a wobbly line, do an about-turn, then flop to the ground in a heap. This was the uncle who, when leading a party hunting for the unbelievably sweet young shoots of coconut plants they’d christened ‘growee,’ began to cross a trench on a log that bucked and flung him off, and who, as everyone scattered and fought to climb the nearest tree, lassoed the log’s head and tail before the word ‘alligator’ had formed on anyone’s lips.

     The child saw red. Red in the earth and clouds and sky, a red dye making visible the air he could only feel until now and drink too, in confirmation of all he felt, red, in the trees and in the ripe fruit and red behind his shut eyes. Red, then black. Beanstalk dearly wanted the whole thing to be a mischievous joke. Like the time his nephew emptied a half-bottle of rum in one long headback slake and tumbled headfirst down the thirty-eight steps from the house into the back yard in such a state of absolute relaxation that he didn’t incur so much as a graze. Something made the uncle stare at the boy’s forehead as if he were watching a miniature screen. The ruptured screen resembled a door blown off its hinges. Out stepped a white body of fluid in one boneless move. As if surprised by the sudden recognition that it was naked, the nubile body gathered about itself a flowing red gown which ran in ceaseless yards, covering all of the boy’s face in seconds.

     Beanstalk dropped the axe, produced a scream that shook the birds like gravity defying fruits from the trees, bolted in a complete circle around the reddening heap of his nephew, then collapsed next to him. The shriek that emptied the trees also woke the house sleeping to the grandfather clock of his axe splitting wood. Doors and shuttered windows sprang open. So many souls materialised from the house, it was as if the scream were a foot that had stepped on an ant nest. Another uncle, younger brother to the one now prone, was the first to reach them. He leapt from the window he looked out of, one floor up, while everyone else took the more conventional route down the stairs. He ran from one body to the next, settling on the smallest and bloodiest since it looked most in need. He opened Red Head’s mouth. It was empty. ‘Find his tongue,’ he shouted between gorging air and expelling it into Red Head’s mouth. Cousins and nephews scrambled around the area hunting for a rubbery organ, caked with the recent lunch of roti and curry. Beanstalk stirred, raised his head in the direction of the unconscious nephew he was sure he’d unwittingly beheaded, since his last image of him was of a headless chicken running around, and fainted again. The child had turned as pale as a cloud. Blood drained from him. Then, as if his body did not like the idea of becoming white, it darkened into progressively deeper shades of blue, like the brewing of a storm.

     It dawned on the uncle giving resuscitation (more like lightning than a dawning) that the air he was blowing into his nephew’s mouth was serving merely to bloat the boy’s cheeks; he was playing the instrument of his nephew’s face, exhaling into its geometry as he was taught but without success: the child had swallowed his tongue. A neat swipe by the uncle’s index finger cleared Red Head’s windpipe. Red Head coughed and gasped. The storm that was whipping itself up behind his eyelids evaporated. Instead of blue sky and daylight greeting his opened eyes, he looked up through a pool of red. He saw figures move in slow motion through this red liquid. He identified one of the figures in this parade behind the screen of his forehead as himself. The other was a presidential figure dressed entirely in purple riding a white stallion. Both the President’s purple regalia and the white hide and mane of the horse resisted the red stain that permeated the tilted field of Red Head’s perspective. Red Head was perched on a russet horse with a draughts board flying in the air between him and the President. Though both horses were in full gallop, the entire scene was undisturbed and the two concentrated on the board as if they were in an airless drawing room instead of sprinting on horseback near the red rim of surf on a red beach.

     Next, in this private parade, came a man wrecked by polio. His arms and shoulders were huge and barred and striped with muscles, in shocking contrast to his shrivelled, bony waist and matchstick legs. This broken man was riding a bicycle twice his size. He rode to the end of a jetty and dived off his bike directly into the sea. The wheels of the fallen bike spinning on greased ball bearings and the ticking of the sprocket, with no rider in sight, made it look like the scene of a suicide. The broken man did not sink as one might expect, but zoomed away fluently, his pointed rugby ball of a head floating on the water, his arms rotating like twin propellers, his body submerged like the hull of a ship.

     The third image was that of a kite flying without a hand to guide it. A long S-shaped tail made of coins strung together waved under the kite’s slow pendulum swing. Both sides of the coins appeared to be a portrait of the same face. A noise akin to the lowest note from a baritone saxophone came from the kite’s tongue as the wind blasted it. Under the hard gaze of the sun the kite seemed to be a rainbow in the sky. Each part of the child-high frame, modelled in the shape of a giant hand, was covered in paper of a different primary colour.

     All three passed: purple President, broken man and kite. ‘There were four,’ piped a small, insistent voice. Red Head cut in quickly, ‘No, three. I should know. Now get out of my head, you’re trespassing.’ The little voice obeyed, dissolving with a puff. Film on the projector ran out, leaving a tilted, pitch-black screen as Red Head plummeted into unconsciousness.

     Granny was the last one out the door. She appeared to float down towards the commotion as a breeze rushing up the stairs fingered its way under her floor-length dress, causing it to billow like a sail up to her hips, where the muscled breeze gripped her, raised her off her feet and bore her down the stairs, even though the dress was as heavy as the cloth of flour sacks that had been ripped out, dyed and stitched into a simple, tentlike design to sit on her six-foot frame, covering her bones in utilitarian fashion, warding off the heat and retaining pockets of cool air, its pleated fringes used for mopping perspiration from her brow, its dark colour disguising the sweat patches under her arms from her constant meanderings of toil that defined her day and that of the house and everyone in it from sunrise to sunset.

     The whirlpool of uncles, aunts, nephews and cousins surrounding Red Head and Beanstalk parted before the grandmother the second she reached its perimeter and closed behind her again as she made her way to its still centre. She knelt beside Red Head. Worry traversed her face, like the shadow of an aeroplane rippling across a field, and disappeared, as if denied permission to settle on it. Granny plastered a dam of a poultice in the split on his forehead and stemmed the tide of blood. Next she turned to Beanstalk, raised his head in her right hand, delicately, as if holding a precious crystal to the light, and with the open palm of her left hand delivered two slaps to his face, one to each cheek, in rapid strokes. Beanstalk sat bolt upright. She returned her attention to Red Head, pulling from her apron the long white flag of a bandage which she used to strap the poultice in place. Red Head groaned. Whispers that Beanstalk might have been spellbound by a pernicious strain of guava circulated among the children.

     Wheels was the natural choice to ride the big black fixed-wheel bike the five miles to the hospital with his patient balanced on the crossbar. Had it not been lunchtime, they would have used the mule and cart for an ambulance. But the mule was out grazing and would have taken too long to round up, cajole into a harness, strap to the cart and whip from a trot to a full gallop.

     Wheels sat on the bicycle with his left foot on the pedal. The saddle was so high the toes of his right foot just reached the ground. He opened his right arm to receive the dazed Red Head and steadied the handlebar with his left. There was a slowness in the way he propped the slumped child on the crossbar, allowing the lolling head to cradle in the crook between his left shoulder and neck. He inclined his head so that the side of his jaw braced the child’s head where it rested against him. Once he’d grabbed the handlebar with his right hand, with Red Head’s legs draped over his arm, he nodded to no one and everyone that he was ready.

     ‘Give me a push’ were his parting words. His two brothers, the big-headed Bounce and a tearful Beanstalk, gave him the initial running start he required. Wheels broke into an immediate sprint, pulling away from them. A trail of sand from the red road fanned out and up. Everyone looked away and shielded their faces. Wheels, Red Head and the bicycle were lost in the voluminous cloud that followed the road out of town as if a route had been predetermined for their tornado. When the storm brewed by Wheels swooped round the corner and could still dimly be seen above the houses and the trees, only then did the twenty-six uncles, aunts, nephews and cousins with Grandmother dismantle the human roadblock they’d erected across the road.

     They had been oblivious to the honking of horns by tractors and the ringing of a dozen bicycle bells that had merged into a huge alarm clock some sleeping giant was ignoring. They had blocked out the church-summoning loudness of the bells on carts, mooing cattle on the drive to the abattoir or market, and bleating sheep. Sheep had gotten mixed with cows, some of whom had butted and kicked them. The minders of both quarrelled among themselves and gesticulated at anyone whose eye they managed to catch, as if to say, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’

     Jammed behind all these were the big-axled, sixteen-wheeled, fuming, growling, articulated trucks, which reputedly never stopped for anyone or anything they hit. Laden down with their excess payload of rock, sand, wood, broken bottles, tar, water, new billiard cues carved from smoke-cured greenheart wood watered by the Orinoco, billiard balls made from the ground bones of the manatee, food, mainly basmati rice, known throughout the interior and even among the Waiyaku of the upper reaches of the Amazon as the best rice for boiling with coconut milk, and fuel from the oil fields of Surinam, they were all destined for the thousand-strong road gang stationed outside the capital. The road gang was rumoured to be paving the sand road with seamless bitumen, the result so smooth an aeroplane could land or take off on it. These men travelled at a quarter of a mile a day, accompanied by a colony of Chinese and Kashmiri cooks, Ghanaian seamstresses and laundresses, barbers whose ancestors were from Karachi and the ancient city of Lahore, Cuban doctors and nurses who relied on the surrounding vegetation for whatever medicines they prescribed and Amerindian prostitutes who floated between four ad hoc bars: one for cocktails, run by an Italian from the north corner of Lake Garda; another peddling frothy beers and managed by a six-hundred-pound German wrestler; a third dealing exclusively in wines pressed from grapes grown in the Dordogne but owned by a male couple from Brittany with their own language and swearwords for anyone who dared to tell them they should speak patois; and a fourth, specialising in the overproof spirits of the Windward Islands of the Caribbean, run by four Jamaicans. The Jamaicans also managed the two coffee huts whose beans came from the Blue Mountains of their island’s heartland and were as valuable as gold bullion; in fact, used as such by the government on more than one occasion to pay the contractors who had lost faith in the bonds issued to them and threatened to withhold their expertise unless the treasured beans were made available to them in several hundred bushels ready for export. Added to these were a comedy theatre of six Englishmen in their late forties who were foremen of the road gang during the day but whose commedia dell’arte at night consisted of cross-dressing with coconut shells as breasts, kente cloth from Accra for elaborate headdresses and moccasins from Oklahoma, drawing catcalls, wolf whistles and applause from the same men they had been ordering around a few hours earlier and would be in charge of again after a night’s sleep; a cinema that was really only a projector and a white sheet stitched to two poles for outdoor screening on dry, insect-ridden nights, which showed Hindi films made in the cavernous studios of Bombay, with their countless love songs which the men committed to their hearts and mouthed during their labour; and an American supermarket with fifty varieties of cereal, all under tarpaulin, which competed with the trading stalls set up on carts owned by Venezuelans. Spontaneous stick fights, stone throwing, arm wrestling, boxing and cricket matches would break out between the rowdy or sporting contingent in the road gang and the inhabitants of whatever locality the red road they were converting to an airstrip happened to pass. Soldiers and police, tax collectors and moneylenders, lawyers and psychics were always camping nearby, some to maintain law and order, others to corrupt it, in this nomadic city trundling towards the house where Red Head lived with his twenty-six relatives and Granny and Grandad, all of whom swore they would not let the road gang’s city enter Ariel.

     ‘There were four.’

     Red Head woke to the small voice he’d banished from inside his head what seemed like only a second earlier, but from his surroundings must have been hours, perhaps days ago.

     ‘There will be red, then there will be black.’

     The voice increased in volume as light intensified in the room. Red Head thought of lifting his arm and flattening into an asterisk whatever it was on his forehead that bugged him, but his arms were two cement blocks by his side, obedient to a will other than the one he mustered.

     ‘You will listen. There were four.’

     The voice did a thumping march across his forehead. His eyes watered. A flashbulb flickered though his lids were pressed tight. Each flicker was triggered by a syllable from that voice. Each syllable delivered a hammer blow to his nerves. And every strand of his nervous system seemed strung into a wet mop being wrung tighter and tighter by two powerful hands.

     ‘Red, then black. I know you can hear.’

     There had been a fourth image in the parade behind his skull witnessed moments after the bolt of lightning from the axe. But what he saw had scared him so much he had censored it, cut it from the film he had viewed and put it at the back of a bottom drawer in an attic room he’d locked with a key he’d thrown far away.

     ‘There were four. Red, then black.’

     The voice grew to a deafening boom. Light flickered so fast the flashes became a glare. Red Head felt the water run from his eyes and collect in his ears. He allowed the attic room to surface. The hands that wrung the mop released their grip immediately and allowed the strands to shake loose. The flicker behind his eyes lessened to something a little slower than the second hand of a clock.

     ‘There were four,’ he admitted to himself.

     ‘All right!’ the small torturer’s voice shrieked, accelerating the flickering and the thumps for two drawn-out seconds before they became a dull, intermittent ache once more. Red Head conjured a picture of the attic door and willed it to open. ‘Open sesame’ were the only words he could think of. A career at picking locks suggested itself to him but he was swift to push it to the edge of his mind, afraid he might invite again the voice that made him cry like a baby. Just as he was about to open the drawer and reach in to retrieve whatever he’d hidden there, he made one last effort to banish from his head the attic, the bottom drawer and, he hoped, the pernicious little voice as well, by summoning a fact.

     ‘Ariel, formerly Percival, Cooperative Republic Village number—One windowless government school run by a teacher with a class of forty-nine, ages ranging from six to sixteen. One rum shop. One baker. Countless guava, guinep, sapodilla, mango, downs, tamarind and coconut trees ...’

     The intruder in Red Head’s skull, put there, he thought, by the surgeon who had stitched the opening made by the axe, resumed his torture of Red Head.

     ‘There were four! Red, then black!’

     The slow flicker went straight to a glare, followed by a thumping across his forehead so rapid it would have made an hour pass in a few seconds if it had been keeping time. Again, two big hands gathered the straggly mop of Red Head’s nervous constitution and twisted it. Tears stung Red Head’s eyes. Instead of giving in to the voice and attic and contents of the bottom drawer, Red Head summoned more facts to help him in his fight, this time a story the teacher told to his class one rainy day at recess when they were all stuck inside and rain blew in the portholes that served as windows.

     ‘Anancy the spider had one hand of bananas which he brought home to his wife and four children for their first meal that day—’

     ‘There were four, damn you!’

     ‘How many bananas make a hand? He gave each of his children one banana. How many did he have left? Anancy offered the last banana to his wife. She refused to accept it. She begged him to eat it. She said he needed the strength to go out and find the next meal—’

     ‘Four! Red, then black!’ The little intruder emphasised each word by jumping four times on the wound on Red Head’s forehead. A near-colourless fluid began to seep out despite the ten tight stitches.

     ‘Anancy the spider insisted until his wife accepted. They sat round the table. Anancy took his usual place. His empty plate stood out next to the plates with bananas that belonged to his wife and children. Anancy’s wife cut her banana in half and put one half on her husband’s plate. A small light appeared in Anancy’s eyes—’

     The little devil repeated his athletic exercise. ‘Four!’ Jump. ‘Red!’ Jump. ‘Then!’ Jump. ‘Black!’ Jump. Red Head bit his tongue but found the interruption only served to make him want to get to the end of his Anancy story.

     ‘Anancy looked at the banana on the plate of his eldest son. His son followed his father’s gaze, cut a third off his banana and put it on his father’s plate. Anancy’s eyes grew wider and brighter as his gaze travelled to the plate of his second child. She too saw his eyes and did exactly what her brother had done. She cut a third off her banana and put it on her father’s plate. How much banana has Anancy collected so far?’

     The little devil jumped on the wound and began to twist on it as he sang, ‘There were four! Red, then black!’ to a rock-and-roll tune. Red Head coiled and squirmed, pulled at his bed sheets and cried but continued his Anancy story.

     ‘Anancy’s third and fourth children followed their father’s gaze as it crept up to their plates, then they copied their brother’s and sister’s example by slicing a third off their bananas and placing the pieces on their father’s full plate. Anancy’s eyes grew so wide his face became two headlights on full beam. How many bananas did Anancy end up with?’

     ‘There!’ Twist. ‘Were!’ Twist. ‘Four!’ Twist and jump.

     The diminutive devil was ankle-deep in blood, ruptured flesh and severed nerves. He paused to look at Red Head. He saw that the boy’s face was a series of crags and ridges, while his teeth were bared (though no sound escaped his wide mouth) and bloody from a bitten tongue. Pint Size, the name that occurred to Red Head for his tormentor, stepped out of the wound, shook the muck from his boots and settled down next to the suppurating mass in a half-lotus. Red Head allowed the door to the attic to swing open. He reached to the back of the bottom drawer. The forbidden fourth image flickered to life. Red Head was shuddering, yet he was covered in sweat. He found it hard to bring the image on the screen into focus. Whatever it was, it looked much like the kite of the previous image. Red Head thought it might be a mistake, that it was indeed the third image being replayed, but before he could do anything to sharpen what he saw so poorly into something recognisable, the light faded, then reddened, then went black. Pint Size punched the air with his fist, considered jumping into Red Head’s wound again to twist for a bit, but thought better of it, and said very quietly into Red Head’s left ear, so that Red Head heard even though he had slipped into unconsciousness, ‘Another day, Axe-features. There will be another day.’

    ‘The doctor said he had to strap your hands to your side.’

     ‘What did I ever do to him?’

     ‘He said you destroyed his neat stitches.’

     ‘Why would I do a stupid thing like that?’


     ‘You let a strange man tie me down and sew me up?’

     Wheels smiled because this was the Red Head he knew and loved, with a tongue in his mouth more like a whip for one so young. He pedalled as if out on an afternoon jaunt. Even this far inland a cool sea breeze nudged them from behind. At the S-bend, on Ariel’s outskirts, two police motorcycles pulled up and waved Wheels to the side of the road. Soon a black limousine approached. Wheels thought of covering Red Head’s bandaged head to protect it from the dust the car would raise as it flew past but Red Head wanted to see. Instead of splashing red sand in their faces and disappearing in a cloud, the car slowed to a crawl. A window in the back seat glided down and sprouted an arm, then a face, masked in a pair of silver-tinted sunglasses with massive lenses—just like the ones his father wore propped up on his skull when indoors and dropped over his eyes with a sharp nod as he ducked into sunlight. The arm waved, the face smiled. Red Head saw himself reflected twice in the sunglasses with two astounded copies of Wheels trying to salute and keep the two Red Heads stable on the crossbar at the same time. When the eyes behind the glasses made four with Red Head’s eyes and winked, Red Head winked back. The police motorcycles accelerated away, followed by the limousine, whose open window retrieved the arm and face and glided up, shutting out the sun and dust.

     ‘Did you see yourself in double karate-chopping the air?’

     ‘The thought of three of you frighten me more than him. One bad enough.’ Both laughed.

     The encounter with the President spurred on the legs of Wheels. He raised himself off the saddle and made a dust cloud of his own to rival the President’s limousine. Red Head leaned with Wheels into both corners of the S-bend. His bandaged head felt weightless. He closed his eyes and listened to the bicycle tyres eating up the yards of sand between them and the house. Each time Wheels pressed down on the pedals Red Head heard the teeth of a saw being pulled and pushed through wood. Soon the sawing lost the little pauses between each stroke as Wheels reached a sprint. It became the continuous whirr of propellers. Wind sang in their ears. They were flying. The frequent little bumps were turbulence.

     Wheels drew up in front of the house. Everyone came out. Someone shouted, ‘Axe-man back!’ Beanstalk lifted Red Head off the bike, hugged him and showered him with apologies. Beanstalk’s head was inches above the six-foot paling fence. He loved to impress the children by vaulting it in a peculiar backwards dive. As Beanstalk bounced along the path from the road to the house with Red Head in his arms, the boy rested his chin on his uncle’s right shoulder and tried to count the individual slats of the paling fence as they bobbed up and down.

     ‘Boy, I thought I chop off your head!’

     His uncle’s casual strides were so long Red Head fell further and further behind in his count. He skipped some palings until his eyes drew level with his uncle’s legs but found as he resumed counting that he immediately fell behind again.

     ‘You make a big man like me faint!’

     Instead of skipping a few palings as before, Red Head gave up counting and watched the pattern of light and shade made by the spaces between the palings and his uncle’s deft pace.

     ‘Nothing ever scare me so!’

     ‘I sorry I make you faint, Uncle. I sorry I scare you.’

     Beanstalk gave Red Head a little squeeze. His nephew squeezed him back.

     ‘Guava had nothing to do with it.’

     ‘I know, Uncle.’

     He climbed the few steps to the porch with Red Head in his arms and met his mother at the door. He handed Red Head over to her. Whereas Beanstalk was solid and hot, Red Head’s grandmother felt soft and cool. Beanstalk had smelled of the sun; Granny, on the other hand, smelled of soap.

     ‘I see the President, first in purple on a white stallion, then in a limousine. He had dark glasses like Daddy’s and I beat him at draughts.’

     ‘You beat everybody at draughts.’

     Someone shouted from the yard, ‘In your dreams.’

     ‘Ask Wheels.’

     Wheels nodded. ‘Is true what Red Head saying. I don’t know about a white stallion but our great benefactor did pass us in his black limo.’

     Not everyone was impressed by the attention Red Head was receiving. Someone who sounded like Red Head’s elder brother shouted, ‘You’re Axe-man now.’

     ‘I am no Axe-man. I is Red Head. He should be Axe-man.’ Red Head pointed with his chin to Beanstalk, who looked away with a broad smile. But a second voice, this time belonging to Bounce, the youngest of his three uncles, with a huge head that was harder than a coconut stripped of its husk and who could butt anyone on any part of their body and make them cry without his eyes so much as watering, shouted, ‘Is too late, once you get name that is it, Axe-man!’

     ‘Go butt down a tree, Hammerhead!’

     Bounce shook his concrete block in amusement and delivered a quick rejoinder, ‘Your head blunt the axe, not mine!’ This raised a big laugh from everyone.

     Red Head tried to match the smiling paving stone. ‘That same axe would have bounced off your mallethead and chopped Beanstalk!’

     There were wolf whistles as everyone prepared for a slanging match. His grandmother turned away from them with him and pulled the door shut behind her. Red Head heard someone shout, ‘When is an axe not an axe?’ The question made him cork his ears with his fingers. He did not want to hear the reply to a riddle he had no part in solving. But he still caught the raucous laughter that erupted in response to a muffled voice that sounded like his brother’s.

     ‘Never mind, child. You still my little Red Head.’

     Granny led him into a bedroom designated for his convalescence. He felt giddy. She eased him onto the bed.

     ‘So you saw our President?’

     Red Head nodded. He let his head drop onto the cool white ironed cotton pillowcase, shut his eyes and pondered when an axe was not an axe. He wished he’d heard the answer because now he would have to make one up.

     ‘He only stop because election coming up.’

     ‘I know, but he stop for just Wheels and me.’

     ‘You don’t know, Red Head. We can’t afford to have any losers in this election.’ Granny put a damp cloth on his bandaged forehead. The cloth’s coldness made him suck on the air. His mind emptied of everything except the lime-grove scent and mesmeric cool of the cloth. This strip of cloth was bleached. Though he could not smell it, he could tell from its stark whiteness. And it resembled several others he’d seen drying on the line every few weeks or so but whose function he’d never believed when told by his girlfriend Sten that the cloths were used by the grown women to stem a monthly flow of blood.

     ‘Does that mean that you will bleed?’

     ‘Yes, one day.’

     He had changed the subject after a moment’s silence and pushed the information to the back of his mind.

     ‘When can I get up, Granny?’

     ‘What do you mean, when can I get up? You just lie down!’

     ‘I was only wondering.’

     ‘Well, you wonder and stay in that bed!’

     ‘All I want is to know.’

     ‘Soon, soon.’

     When his mother had gone abroad with his three younger brothers and left him in Ariel with his elder brother, she too had told him soon. She would return soon. That was six months ago. He missed her. She was bony but her skin was soft. She was sweeter than any fruit or flower, whereas Granny carried the odour of soap and, when she’d just brought clothes in off the line, of the sun. At his age every desire was soon. And his father had gone away. Just like that, he’d dived into the hot afternoon, his eyes hidden with a nod just in time to avoid the sun. The last time Red Head had talked with Bash Man Goady about missing their mother, father and brothers, they were having a walk-race to school. His brother was breathless but he’d paused to draw hard on the air and had spoken as if they had been swinging in the hammock at the bottom of the house.

     ‘If you don’t think about it, it won’t hurt.’

     He had taken his brother’s advice as a necessary gospel. So far it seemed to work when he was awake, but when he slept all he saw was his three brothers and his mother, just out of earshot of him. And no matter how hard he ran towards them, they always maintained the same distance from him even though they did not move. But his father, who was never in these dreams, was simply gone. Red Head would wake up with his heart pounding, angry and ready to cry, but because he was not alone, he could not cry. The others would see and they’d call him a crybaby and laugh at him.

     Red Head woke up to a bowl of soup, three pieces of buttered bread and his friend Raj smiling at him. He sat up in bed and ate fast. The bread was oven-warm. Melted butter had to be balanced on the slice as he lifted it to his face. He inhaled deeply, then took a big bite and chewed with his eyes closed. He drained the bowl of rice and pea soup and would have used his bread to wipe the bowl had Raj not been there. All this time Raj stood and watched him and smiled. Once Red Head was finished, Raj took the tray from his lap and placed it on the floor. Red Head propped himself up some more but his grandmother cast him such a look when she came to collect the empty tray that he slid down under the bedclothes until his head was resting on the pillow again.

     ‘Granny, your soup and bread is the best in the whole wide world.’

     ‘Child, what do you know about the world?’

     She rested the back of her hand on his forehead, squinted at the bandage and exited. The hem of her long dress swept the floor clean of any prints she might have left.

     ‘Raj! What you got to tell me?’

     ‘Boy, something boss!’

     Raj had a photographic memory for Westerns. He didn’t tell you what happened in a film, he showed you. He spoke all the parts and drew an imaginary pistol from an imaginary holster and made a pistol shot with his pursed lips in rough synchronisation to his cocked thumb hitting his pointed index finger. His weak sphincter muscle interrupted his show several times. As a result he tended to shorten any long panning shots or rides into and out of towns. Despite wads of tissue stuffed down his trousers, there remained a permanent wet patch on his crotch. A strong smell of urine emanated from him, earning him the name Pissy-missy. Were it not for this affliction, his Westerns would have made him many more friends. Once Raj got going, the smell around him evaporated and his wet patch vanished. Granny came into the room and opened the window. Raj had got to the point where the star boy, as all the heroic cowboys were called, had an arm pumped full of lead and he was in the process of crawling off to his hideout to be nursed back to health by an Indian woman. Granny placed the back of her hand on Red Head’s forehead.

     ‘That’s enough for today, Raj. You killing him with all the excitement.’

     Raj waved from the door. Granny twitched her nose. Red Head knew it was because of the rancid smell, but he said nothing and did everything in his power not to twitch his nose too. She changed his bandage. Neither spoke. Towards the end of dressing his head, she began to hum a calypso. He knew the words and smiled.

     ‘What tickle you?’

     ‘I know that song. It rude.’

     ‘If you know it rude, you better don’t let me catch you singing it.’

     Instead of the words to the calypso, the solution to the axe puzzle leapt from his mind onto his tongue like one of those fishes in the trench that sometimes shot clear of the muddy water and ended up on the bank in an epileptic frenzy as they drowned in air.

     ‘Axe! Ask! When is an axe not an axe? When it is a request! When you ask for something!’

     ‘Boy, you too bright for your own good.’

     ‘Can I play draughts with someone? I won’t sit up.’

     ‘All right, but only a couple of games, no more.’

     Bash Man Goady hovered with the board and the draughts as if waiting for an invitation. They nodded and set about erecting the black and white round pieces on opposing squares. Red Head glanced at Bash Man Goady and caught him scrutinising his damaged forehead out of the corner of his eye.

     ‘Does it hurt?’

     ‘Not a lot.’

     ‘Boy, I never see so much blood in my life.’

     ‘Did you think I was going to die?’

     ‘No. You’re a Santos. We’re tough.’

     They looked at each other and smiled in a rare offering of kindness. The departure, first of their father and then their mother and younger brothers, had driven a wedge between them. Whenever there was a dispute in the house they found themselves on opposing sides. In school they never spoke to each other and when they went on day trips, people were often surprised to learn they were related, never mind brothers. Red Head had overheard his mother trying to explain the rivalry between them to her alarmed mother-in-law, after their first terrible fight at Ariel in which they’d exchanged punches until their eyes were closed.

     ‘I don’t know,’ she’d said in stubborn bewilderment. ‘Is like the second one born too soon when he born at seven months, and the first one feel he get push out of the way.’

     His grandmother began to offer some remedy in her usual method of contradicting everything Red Head’s mother said or did, but he had heard enough and had already bolted from the kitchen door convinced that his premature appearance into the world was solely responsible for his brother’s short temper and grouchy demeanour.

     ‘Hello? Wake up! I said, What’s this about beating the President at draughts?’

     ‘Boy, I wash his gall! It was only a dream but it was real as you and me talking now.’

     ‘You think you will win the National Draughts Championships?’

     ‘You want me to?’

     ‘What kind of question is that? Of course!’

     ‘I wasn’t sure.’

     ‘Look, you is my brother, right? We fight and things, but you is my blood. Put our name on the map!’

     Red Head hopped over three of Bash Man Goady’s pieces and gained a king.

     ‘Man! I can’t play you, you too good!’

     Granny came in and from her knitted brows he knew it was time to rest. His brother packed up the game, proffered that rare smile again and left. Granny tucked him in so tightly he had to strain to loosen the sheets. Then she dropped the mosquito net over his bed. To him the net was like the lid of a casket, sealed with him inside. Had the axe been one inch lower to the left or right this would have been his fate; except it would have been dark with less room to manoeuvre. He shuddered. His grandmother’s tone was neither admonishing nor sarcastic when she watched his struggle with the sheets and asked him whether he thought he’d turned into a man. He still felt weak and any sudden move made his head throb.

     He lost track of the days. Everyone was at school or in the rice fields or minding the cows or attending to the pigs or the chickens or preparing some meal in the kitchen. Everyone was everywhere but in the room with him. They were kind enough to leave him a draughts set but playing against himself only revealed the futility of any attempt to fool or trick his mind. They brought him a slate from school on which he practised his writing, which was better than usual without the teacher looking over his shoulder. He wrote the alphabet with a flourish as if his name consisted of all twenty-six letters, pretending that his chalk was really a quill and that he was signing the Declaration of Independence of his country from British rule or the unification of all the land’s seven peoples. He also made up words by haphazardly juxtaposing letters plucked from his head or suggested by a portion of the wall that had caught his eye. Some mornings he’d be dreaming, something he couldn’t recount when awake, and the smell of Granny’s baked bread that filled the house at dawn would work its way into his dream, causing his mouth to water, stirring the desire for food and nudging him from sleep with its promise of fresh bread, melted butter and tea.

     Raj visited once more, armed with the story of a new Western he’d seen. His sound effects of gunfights involving up to a dozen gunslingers with an array of six-shooters and rifles produced foam at the corners of his mouth, imbued with a urinous air acrid as sulphur. After Raj departed, Granny opened the window and left in a hurry without a word. Red Head was sure she was holding her breath throughout. Bash Man Goady looked in now and again too, sometimes with a message from Sten, other times for a quick game of draughts. Grandad’s visits were the most important of all. He’d sit on the end of the bed and ask Red Head to imagine a draughts board on the sheet between them. Then he would talk what he called ‘tactics’ with his grandson. Red Head never saw Grandad leave because without fail he’d fall asleep at some point during these tactical lectures. Grandad kept returning so Red Head reasoned that he couldn’t have minded.

     One morning Granny came in to change his bandage. He sat up. She circled his head with her hand as she unwound the cloth. He thought he was being blessed, but the sign was a circle, not a cross. Somehow the Crucifixion had occurred and the most important motif that had emerged from the event was a circle. He pictured the front of churches and Bibles with a circle on them and light radiating out from the edges of the circles. Perhaps Jesus had been tied to a wheel he had to carry in public to jeers and taunts and then lowered into water repeatedly until he drowned. What about the two thieves? Where would he place them? On two more wheels with all three being lowered head first periodically into the water?

     He inclined his head for a new bandage in vain. Granny pointed to the door. Red Head hugged her and headed straight for the voices he could hear splashing in the shell pond. At the pond the others were so pleased to see him, they stopped their game of trying to escape the touch of whoever was the last to be touched and clapped and cheered. Most called him Red Head; a few, Axe-man. He saw reflected in the mirror of the shell pond a path on his forehead much like the red sand road in its wavering but the ten stitches across the gash made it look like a single railway line with sleepers across it. Someone splashed near him and the image shimmered. Now his face softened just as the red sand did after rain when the cars got stuck in it but he knew the road on his forehead would be impervious to water. As he shaped up for a belly-splashing dive, he remembered a finger waving a warning in his face, so close it displaced the air there. He was not to go near the shell pond and get his head wet. He dismissed his dive as a bad idea under the circumstances and waded in. A cool stocking rode up his legs. At crotch level he gasped, pulled in his stomach and straightened to his full height. At chest level he stood still for a moment, allowing the pleasant shock of the ring climbing his body to be warmed by the sun. He swam like a dog, keeping his head high out of the water and paddling his hands below the water in front of him. The others resumed their game. Everyone took care not to splash around him.

     There were shells on the bottom, though he could not recall when he had last looked down with his face pressed through the skin of the pond’s surface to witness their magnified clarity. He automatically responded to the thought by lowering his chin but checked himself, jerking his head back. His eyes shut out the light and the water went very cold. The mirror of the pond he now located in the sky. According to this logic all he needed to do to see the bed of the shell pond was to raise his eyes. The sheet of lightning he’d missed for weeks struck and blackened his sight. He swallowed. Copper sprang to mind. Trees and sky were shells laid out on this black background for inspection. The whole arrangement was tilted at an angle. He took this as an invitation for him to ponder its detail.

     ‘There will be red, then there will be black. The red sand road will be a river of blood. The river will dry but the red sand will not reappear. A hard black road will run through the heart of the land.’ The small, unshakable voice was familiar to Red Head. He struggled to focus on the shells but they remained blurred. The tilted display receded from him or he from it.

     The others did not miss Red Head. They’d grown accustomed to playing around him and then had proceeded to ignore him. Beanstalk was watching the children playing in the shell pond from a first-floor window he habitually sat beside as he smoked and talked to whoever was in the kitchen. He sounded as if he was shouting at someone because the entrance to the kitchen was at the far end of the room. Perhaps it was hard to register the fact that one of the heads, the least frantic of them, had lowered itself in the water and had not surfaced for some time. He stopped shouting in mid-sentence and placed his cigarette on the edge of the table with the lit end hanging but without taking his eyes off the pond. Whoever was in the kitchen heard him exclaim, ‘Jesus!’, and if they had had time to enter the room he was in, they would have seen him leap from the window to the ground and run at the fence that was a few inches short of his six feet five inches and take the fence in a backward flip which he simply pointed into a dive as he entered the shell pond. When Beanstalk surfaced, Red Head was in his arms. He depressed Red Head’s stomach and blew air into his lungs. Red Head spluttered.

     A small, close, truly wicked voice whispered, ‘There were four.’

     Later that day Beanstalk carried Red Head across the field of tall razor grass separating Grandmother’s house from the mud hut of the reclusive Miss Metage, who administered natural remedies for children’s aches and pains. Her hands had delivered Red Head’s youngest brother, whose sudden birth was brought on when his mother chased Bash Man Goady to lock him in the brush pen for his bad behaviour. The exertion, though successful since she was the fastest sprinter in the village, nevertheless made her double up with labour pains. The children called Miss Metage Ole Higue because they were sure she flew on a broom at night and sucked the life out of babies in their cots. Whenever they saw her they ran from her, all except Red Head’s youngest brother, and she reserved her smile just for him.

     She pointed to a rug on the floor of her mud hut. The second Beanstalk released him, Red Head sat up and peered at the stooped, short body of the woman. He was afraid to look into her eyes. She motioned at Red Head to lie on his back but he obeyed only when Beanstalk raised his eyebrows at him. She passed a string over an open flame burning in a small spherical metal dish and allowed the wax running off the string to fall on her open palm as she moved, swiftly for her years, from the one small table in the hut to where Red Head lay. Her hand came away from the bottom of the string and the hot wax dripped on Red Head’s bare chest. He bawled. Beanstalk winced but he knew it was fear more than pain that had caused the child to scream. When she asked Beanstalk to hold the whimpering Red Head as still as possible, the child’s sobbing renewed. ‘This will not hurt.’ She reached for the metal dish with the single flame. Shielding the flame with her hand and body so that Red Head could only see her back as she drew near and stooped next to him, she thrust it at his eyes. Red Head tried to pull his head back but his uncle’s grip was too strong. He clamped his eyelids and saw lightning. His tongue was instantly coated with copper. ‘Let him go.’

     Beanstalk eased his twitching nephew onto the mat and looked at Miss Metage for an explanation. But she was busy placing a folded piece of cloth under the child’s head and peering into his mouth to ensure he had not bitten or swallowed his tongue. When Red Head’s shuddering stopped and he opened his eyes but did not seem to know where he was, Miss Metage took the cap off a dark bottle, waved the open neck near his nose and his head cleared. She held the bottle at arm’s length from herself and Red Head, and Beanstalk took it and replaced the cap.

     ‘Don’t screw it too tight or I’ll have to call you next time I want to open it.’ She tried to mop Red Head’s brow but he recoiled. When she smiled at him and tried again, he let her. ‘You had a fit. You are young, you might grow out of it. Never stare at the sun or any flickering bright light. Always keep a lump of sugar in your pocket in case you feel hungry. Never stand on your head or dive head-first into water. Avoid sudden noise and don’t let anyone hit you on the head again.’ She looked at Beanstalk when she said the part about avoiding knocks to the head, and he examined his feet. ‘Why you never bring the boy to me when you chop his head? Whoever stitch this must have been drunk.’ She selected a jar from a row lined up against the wall on the floor, lifted a feather in it and daubed Red Head’s cut with a brown, viscous liquid. This time he kept his head very still for her. She blew on the cut and it felt cool and the skin around the cut stiffened a little as the liquid dried. It reminded him of how mud felt after he crossed a trench and the mud on his feet went dry. Miss Metage ruffled his hair and broadened her smile and gave him a cake made from pieces of coconut covered in brown sugar.

     ‘Thank you, Ole—Miss Metage.’

     Beanstalk gave her two small bags; one contained rice, the other flour.

     ‘Feed him with the heart of young coconut trees. That will mend his mind.’ She told Red Head if he blurted ‘thank you’ once more, he would induce a fit. ‘Say howdy to your mother.’

     Beanstalk gave him a piggyback along a winding path across the field to their house. Red Head decided never to run from Miss Metage again and never to hide from her and pelt her with the red sand stones that exploded on impact. He asked Beanstalk if she really flew on a broom and turned into a ball of fire in order to get through keyholes to babies’ cots. His uncle said Miss Metage wouldn’t hurt a fly.

     ‘Boy, it looks like we have to find you some growee.’

     ‘Would that be like trying to find guava?’

     ‘Much easier, I think.’

     Red Head speculated whether a fit would hinder or help his game in the coming draughts championships. Beanstalk was sure fits would prove useful, if Red Head could summon them at will.

     ‘What if I could touch someone’s head during a fit and pass it on to them?’

     ‘Or when you touch them you could read their thoughts!’

     ‘Now that’s what I call power!’

Fred D’Aguiar’s books include the novel Children of Paradise (2014), the poetry collection Letters to America (Carcanet Press, 2020), and the memoir Year of Plagues (Harper, 2021). His first publication in our pages was in Conjunctions:27, The Archipelago: New Caribbean Writing (1996).