Ash on Guavas

by Lawrence Scott

“This is a darling of an island.” Fitzroy Cuthbert spoke softly to himself as he fumbled with his boots, sitting on the veranda of his small board house in the pearly gray of the foreday morning. The moon was bone white. “Yes, darling,” he smiled, taking up his white enamel mug with the blue rim from the ledge of the veranda and sipping his black coffee. He packed a cigarette, tock, tock, and lit it. He inhaled deeply and sighed. “Yes. Watch you rise.” He spoke to the island as he saw the first glimmer of pink begin to grow in the sky over Mosquito Ghaut. The night noise of insects began to fade with the encroaching day. This was his sign to collect his fork, spade, and hoe from under the house in order to make his daily journey to his farm in the hills above Guages. “My paradise, here I come. By the sweat of my brow. Today I plant cassava. Tomorrow is bananas.”

Sarah Garnet, Cuthbert’s granddaughter, 16 years old, heard him leave the house. Lying in her bed under the net, on the other side of the veranda wall, she felt comforted by his waking, and saw in her mind’s eye his climb up the red dirt road into the steadily increasing green of the hills. The hot sun did not take long to rise. Her heart was full of pride. For him, her grandpappy! But her lying in on the first day of the long school vacation was soon shattered by her grandmother who always rose after her husband. “Rock of Ages, cleft for me.”

Sarah knew the verses well. She would focus on particular words. Cleft. “That man is my cross, yes.” Ethel Cuthbert quarreled and prayed, “That confounded cigarette,” as she opened up the jalousies of her drawing room and threw open the shutters for the day to pour in, remembering what the doctor had said about her husband’s heart, how the continual smoking was tightening up his arteries. “What Dr. Simmons know about that man’s heart? I could tell him some things about it. What could burst that heart.” Sarah Garnet smiled at her grandmother talking to herself, thinking that she was alone with the old love that she had to be so careful with, before it get suddenly taken away and she get left in this house alone. “Let me hide myself in thee.” She had a gospel voice. “Sarah, child, you up?” A cock crowed in the neighbor’s yard.

“Coming, grandma. Soon.” She knew she still had a few more verses to doze through. And she had her own dreams.

“From thy riven side which flowed.”

Riven. That was another word.

All along the coast, the sea breeze rolled the arrowing sugarcane fields, coming up from Mesopotamia and Egypt, past the village of Felicity, where the old sugar mill squatted in the folds of the fields.

Sarah dozed and dreamed. It was Mr. Courtney Hunt, her schoolteacher’s voice in the geography lesson on the last day of term. “And then we had our archipelago. These very islands, an underwater cordillera rose from the sea, exploding with a fire that was the beginning of the world.” Sarah drew her map. It was like a bow stretched out into the Atlantic Ocean between the eagle’s beak of Florida and the iguana of the Venezuelan coastline. Mr. Hunt had a poetry for it. That was what made geography so exciting. With his deep voice, he fed her words while she drew. “See the rosary of islands, the splintered arc. See each mountain peak; an indigo, green serration that runs along the rim of the new world basin.” He spoke almost in pentameter. He had a cane that traced the archipelago on a glossy map that hung on the classroom wall. Sarah drew, absorbed, to the tap tap of the cane.

 

“Not the labors of my hands. Sarah, Sarah, child. Them lilies and ferns need water before the hot sun reach them.” Sarah awoke from her reverie into her grandmother’s poetry, her daily demands and chores.

The garlic and ginger flavors of her grandmother’s cooking had dispelled her grandfather’s coffee and cigarette smoke. The lilies yielded their own perfume as she watered them from the watering can in the corner.

“I going into the mountain today, Sarah, to meet your grandpappy.” Ethel Cuthbert stood at her kitchen sink washing and cutting vegetables that she was putting on to boil for a broth. “That is what Dr. Simmons say. Give him fresh vegetables, no ground provision, cut out the starch. Plenty carrots, greens, string beans, and spinach. He must think the man is a horse or what, that he only want to be eating grass. Dr. Simmons don’t know a strong man working on his land need some beef, something to fill his belly?” Ethel Cuthbert was staring out her kitchen window at the mountain she would soon climb.

“Let me come with you, grandma. You going walking alone in this hot sun, and you yourself have pressure.”

“Oh, so young people come like parents to their grandparents now? Girl, I walking up in that mountain since I is your age. That is a natural place for me to be. You stay here. Sweep the yard. And you have study to do? Something you writing for Mr. Courtney Hunt?” She raised her eyebrows. “I don’t have to remind you why your mother have you in the school.”

Sarah thought of her essay for Mr. Courtney Hunt: The Origins of the Archipelago.

The sun was up now. It was a hot day. Sarah gazed from the veranda out over the savanna where the goats were tethered. The guava trees were yellow and green with fruit. She must pick some. She could see over to Fort Ghaut and Spring Ghaut. The green of the island was like jade. It glinted. The sea was cobalt. The sky vivid. Indigo. Mr. Courtney Hunt’s word.

 

“Sarah, I going now, child.” Ethel Cuthbert met with Sarah in the yard, where she was watering the purple and white impatiens she had planted to please her grandmother along the gravel path that led up to the front steps of the board house. She had put conches and shells from the beach at Endeavour’s Rest all along the border when she had been a little girl.

“Come give you grandmother a kiss.” Ethel Cuthbert proffered her cheek. Then she took Sarah’s chin in her bony fingers, staring into her eyes. “You is a sweet child. God knows how you mother could leave you with me and go off into the world yonder. And your father, well!” Ethel Cuthbert jerked her head with derision in the direction where she thought Miami was, as if it were just up the road. “Christina must think that American dollars is everything.” Ethel Cuthbert picked up her bundle from the bottom step. “I have a nice broth for grandpappy. Some for you on the stove. Keep yourself good. Don’t be eating too many of them green guavas and get bellyache. Look for we sundown.”

Sarah stared at her grandmother’s back as she climbed the red dirt road toward the hills. She continued to stare till her pale yellow dress was part of the light, till her gospel voice had faded: “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling naked, come to thee for dress . . .”

Sarah mused: cleft, riven, naked, cling.

 

Sarah went to her small desk with the inkwell where she had her books covered in brown paper with her name and subjects written with a broad fountain pen nib in royal blue Quink ink. SARAH GARNET, GEOGRAPHY, SALEM GOVERNMENT SCHOOL. She wrote in her copy book, choosing her words carefully from her list of definitions. She drew the wall of the volcano between the mountains. From the crater she drew a narrow margin as the main vent into the magma chamber. In cascading squiggles she built up the dome of her illustrated volcano for her essay, The Origins of the Archipelago. She colored in the molten lava spilling over the rim. Mushrooming above her crater was a gray-black ash cloud.

Then Sarah noticed that it had gone dead quiet. The birds were not singing.

Suddenly, the strange quiet was broken by a roar, like that of two 747 jets low above the house. Then she heard her school friend Antonina shouting, “Sarah, Sarah, come outside and see.” Sarah dropped her pen, slammed down her copy book and ran out to the veranda. “Sarah, watch, Soufrière! Watch the mountain!”

Sarah and Antonina stood clinging to each other staring at the ash cloud belch from the crater on the summit of the Soufrière Hills. They watched the column of ash cloud move with the wind off the Atlantic. It was moving toward them and their village.

“Go inside your house girl,” Antonina cried as she turned. “Read your Bible.”

 

Sarah sat in her grandmother’s tidy drawing room on one of her varnished Morris chairs by the small table with the lace doily and the green cut glass vase with her new yellow and red plastic flowers. She rocked gently back and forth and sang her grandmother’s hymn “Rock of ages, cleft for me. Let me hide myself in thee.”

It had grown dark. She switched on the light that hung in a white clouded-glass shade from the center of the ceiling.

On the wind that reached the hill village there was the sulfur smell of rotten eggs. Sarah closed the veranda door and pulled in the shutters after pulling down the jalousies. She stuffed newspaper in the crevices of the doors and windows.

Outside was like night. The streetlights had been turned on.

There was another roar and then a scream. From the window she saw the Guages wall rip open. She ran down the steps into the yard to pick up the washing off the line, Ethel Cuthbert’s best sheets. By the time she reached back upstairs, it had begun to fall like hard rain. She stood alone in the kitchen and it came down like a hard rain. Inside, it sounded like a bucket of nails falling on the galvanized roof. She remembered Mr. Courtney Hunt describing the pumice stones falling. He had read to them from Pliny the Younger, about the cinders thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, the pumice stones blackened, scorched and cracked by the fire. She remembered the date, August 79 AD at the Bay of Naples, which sounded so pretty. Pompeii.

When Sarah looked out the window again she could no longer see the orange streetlights. She sat under the ceiling bulb and rocked herself. She shut her eyes and hummed. The hillside above the green banana valley opened up. Her grandpappy, Fitzroy Cuthbert, was in his cassava patch weeding and hoeing, a half-finished cigarette placed behind his ear. Sitting under a cashew tree in her pale yellow dress was her grandma Ethel Cuthbert pouring vegetable broth into a white enamel bowl. Sarah felt safe in her thoughts and prayers.

 

“Sarah, open up, open up.” It was a man’s voice she did not know. Sarah opened the front door slowly. The floor and ledges of the veranda were covered with gray sand. Ash. There was a small pickup truck in the road with its lights on. There was the smell of gunpowder in the still air. Everything was muffled. “This is bad news, child, come.” The man was wearing an ash mask. She remembered the evacuation procedures they had once learned at school, how to put on the ash masks.

“The Lord has taken them into himself.” A woman she recognized as a friend of her grandmother’s put her arm around her shoulder. “Don’t show the child.”

Sarah looked instinctively to the back of the pickup truck. She heard the sound of a zip tearing through plastic.

“Is okay,” she said. “I know about these things. I’ve studied the nature of these things.”

Two men then lowered onto the ground the two stretchers from the back of the pickup with the black plastic body bags. The corpses lay on their backs with their arms across their chests. “They would have become like charred wood,” Sarah said. She turned to the small group of people who had collected and whom she now recognized even in their ash masks. “You see, if the pyroclastic flow seize you. Your clothes go catch on fire. Your hair will just go, just so, disappear. As you breathe in that air, your lungs will hemorrhage. Your lung tissue will carbonize.”

The increasing crowd listened to the young girl, who, as she talked, from time to time stared at what were the corpses of her grandparents Fitzroy and Ethel Cuthbert. They were like charred wood. She noticed that their knees were slightly bent.

 

Two weeks later, the evacuation had begun. Sarah sat in the chopper that was airlifting her to the destroyer out in the harbor. Soon they were above the island, the sea like rippling galvanized sheeting. The small farms and villages higgledy piggledy. The sun was hidden by the ash cloud. They were veering toward Galway. Over Harris and Webbs. She saw where the pyroclastic flow was still moving down Belham Valley River, taking everything in its way, moving at more than 100 miles an hour, more than 800 degrees Celsius. She watched with awe the wonder that had created the archipelago.

The road from Plymouth to Salem was a long line of evacuees. On the backs of trucks and carts people carried all that they possessed: tables and chairs, cabinets, refrigerators, stoves, boxes, suitcases, chickens, and rabbits in coops. Sarah saw a boy with a parrot on his arm. Goats and donkeys tethered to carts trotted with the slowly moving procession along the coastal road. The wind was in the faces of men, women and children. Ash swirled in clouds, lifting off the road. Old people were supported. All trudged, breathing heavily in their ash masks. They had lost everything. The gray waves crashed on the shore with relentless monotony.

The light was ash, ash covered every withered tree and all the ground.

 

From the deck of the HMS Liverpool Sarah looked out over to that darling of an island as Fitzroy Cuthbert, her grandpappy, had called it each morning before his climb into the fertile, red-dirt, green slopes below the Soufriere Hills as he fumbled with his boots on the veranda, drank black coffee and smoked that confounded cigarette as Ethel Cuthbert used to call it. Sarah hummed, “Let me hide myself in thee.”

She felt in the pocket of her jeans for the guava that she had picked from the tree in her yard before leaving home. The smell of sulfur and gunpowder still clung to it despite the quick wash she had given it with soap and water. She let it drop from her hands, staring down over the side of the railings, and saw it make its small splash in the wake of the ship, in the wake of home.

 

Lawrence Scott is from Trinidad and Tobago. His novel Aelred’s Sin was awarded the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize in the category of Best Book in the Caribbean and Canada. His previous novel, Witchbroom (Heinemann, 1993), was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers Prize and was read as a BBC Book at Bedtime. His collection of stories, Ballad for the New World, followed in 1994, and included “The House of Funerals,” winner of the 1986 Tom Gallon Award. Scott is a contributor to the BBC Radio 4 Short Story Program, and his work is internationally anthologized. He lives in London, where he combines writing with teaching English and creative writing.

Tags:
Short stories
Nature
Coming of age
Families
Disasters
Caribbean literature
BOMB 82
Winter 2003
The cover of BOMB 82
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