Passing Through by Colin Channer

BOMB 86 Winter 2004
086 Winter 2004 1024X1024

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


II.

He was set to leave that evening on a packet boat that had arrived the night before from Cartagena via Port of Spain. Officially, he’d only been recalled, but a secret letter brought him wind of circulated gossip—they were going to defrock him in New York.

After leaving San Carlos, the RMPS Cordoba would sail to Cuba. There, it would call at Havana before sailing up the eastern coast. But if he had the courage to pursue his plan he wouldn’t be aboard; instead he would be sailing on another ship to New Orleans.

As Antonio paddled down the Janga, Father Eddie focused on his plan. New Orleans was in every sense but geographic like a Caribbean town. In a place like that, he thought, a man like him could find a way to be himself.

He began to think about it more as old Antonio rowed … shuffled it with other places like a deck of cards … Boston, St. Louis, even Montreal … and it always reappeared … on top, face up … the only place that could alleviate the damp malaise that would arrive like fever with his sepia-toned nostalgia for these islands … the humid towns and wooden houses … the porches trimmed in iron braids … the wantonness at carnival … the piety at Lent … the wonder of a Creole chorus cruising over music pocked with tribal accents … the acceptance of people with mixed blood.

From the prow of the canoe, he looked up from his thoughts and saw the shaggy hut retreating up the stream above Antonio’s head, three stories tall on pilings set wide and braced with rough crossbeams. What was Eugenia doing? Did she read his note? He began to wonder if he should have left some money with his note; but this was overwhelmed by other thoughts.

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

But what about the love of love? This would be the challenge of his coming life.

Father Eddie had approached the priesthood as a pragmatist, as many colored men had volunteered to go to war. The uniform itself was an advancement, elevation to a caste above the one to which the wearer had been born. If he were a Father he could never be a boy?

Although he’d been a priest for 15 years, Father Eddie, in the secret place in which he kept the names of all the things that he would like to see imprinted on his grave, was a teacher, not a priest.

He’d studied math and languages at Fordham, the beneficiary of a trust for orphaned boys, and had joined the priesthood, at the urging of a curate, Father Higgins, known by all his students as “The Blessed Uncle Auntie”—a drinker whose gin-wizened face retained a rosy femininity that didn’t match the booming voice in which he lectured forth on theorems and their proofs.

As he often did while pondering his future, he reflected on the late professor’s sharp advice: “There’s nothing here for you, my son. Join the priesthood. See the world.”

If he couldn’t be a teacher in New Orleans, Father Eddie thought—nodding with politeness to Antonio, who continued to apologize about “arriving while the Blessed Father purged vexation from that demon girl”—he could start a gym, a place where troubled boys would learn some discipline and vent their rage. In his teenage years, three of which were spen “away,” he’d learned to box. At first he’d learned because he wanted to be fierce. But the ritual of taping and skipping and the intellectual challenge of perfecting techniques had made him calm. But then again, he thought, I’ve always been a drinker. Maybe I should start a saloon.

As Antonio rowed and jabbered, Father Eddie tried to see himself in different roles, in different places, doing different things, exploring each idea—examining its fit from different angles like a woman in a changing room with lots of blouses. Purposeful. Decisive. But compelled to look at options. Knowing he would always be a teacher. Teaching was his love.

In 10 years in these islands he’d founded five schools, two of which, St. George’s Boys and Holy Childhood Girls, were built above Seville in 1900. Each of them had boarding room for 80, with 30 places set aside for children of the poor.

“Father, we going show them,” said Antonio.

Like most Carlitos, he didn’t speak English, but a dialect of Spanish called sancoche. For although San Carlos was an English colony, it had a longer history under Spanish rule.

Sancoche was spoken in the rafters of the mouth with a barely moving tongue. And its natural pitch was low and rumbling, even in the mouths of little girls.

“When they see we, they go know,” exclaimed Antonio. “They go know who shame and who ain’t shame. They go know who smart and who ain’t smart. They go know that they can’t mash up our something with their strategy, that they can’t do God work if God ain’t choose them to do it Only God anointed can do God work. And is God anoint you, Father Eddie. Is God write the Book. Man could only type.”

“Thank you,” Father Eddie murmured. He was grateful, but embarrassed. And he made a note to speak more brightly, hoping that a bolder show of gratitude would make Antonio cease.

They were 50 yards away from the armada of canoes. Overhead, among the mangroves, monkeys skittered when the crowd began to cheer. At Antonio’s urging, Father Eddie rose and faced the people, greeted them with open arms, thinking as he neared them, I have failed.

Father Eddie would have chosen to depart alone, to launch himself into infinity as self-contained and private as a message in a flask; but the people of New Lagos, the descendants of Yoruba slaves who’d run away and made a secret life among the manatees, desired a parade, and Antonio had organized an armada of the island’s fishing people, a convoy of peasants in their Sunday best that would circumnavigate the pear-shaped island, which was plunked midway between Barbados and St Lucia, gathering force and numbers at each cove … each beach … each bay … each town … before entering the harbor in Seville, where they would come ashore beside the market with their red turbans and black jackets and white frocks, shoeless, slippered and unshod, and make their way along the foreshore road to the foot of the statue of Admiral Nelson where a band of drums and fifes and tambourines and two regiments of jonkanoos—some in masks of bulls and demons, others clad from head to toe in raffia that transformed their wearers into spectacles like bobbling mounds of hay—would lead a dance around the garden in the center of the flagstone plaza, chanting Hail Marys that would echo through the archways of the old limestone buildings with galries and columns that looked out on the square.

And if anyone should say they were disturbing the peace they would say there was no peace to be disturbed, that there would never be no peace on this island till this man here on our shoulder, this first black priest we ever see, this man who make a school so we children could learn something, this man who save everybody on this island life, because when the ground started to shake and a little smoke and bad odor start to seep out like Diablo was going to go boo-doom like them devil mountains in Martinique and St Vincent last year, and everybody was getting frighten, and all who had the means to leave was packing up and sending off their wife and children to Jamaica and taking up with housekeeper ’cause they say if they go dead they want to dead happy, when both the Anglican and Catholic bishops and the governor pack up and leave, Father Eddie call up clergy from all churches on this island and say, “Let we go up to the mountain and call upon the power of God.”

And all of them was ‘fraid, and he say he going to go alone. And they give him their blessing. They give him in truth. But when they find out that he keep a meeting with the babalaos to persuade the most powerful ones to go with him they say Father Eddie mustn’t go because them things is worshipping false gods and that if he go is blasphemy and promoting idol worship.

So Father Eddie didn’t go, and the babalaos go alone and they was up in the mountain 14 days and is more smoke and sulfur odor coming down. And when they do come back three of them dead, and then is more panic now. And all the people say the world was going to end.

So naturally, all who have feud with who decide to take it out. And all who harboring ill feelings start to tell off who they ain’t like. And one and two fellas who watching a girl long time start to terrorize the place with rape. Even down to police was involved.

And the only thing that stop all that was when the Lord put His hand across Diablo mouth. And the man who God work through was Father Eddie. This man.

When all was lost this man went up in the mountains one more time with the remnants of the babalaos. The last two left when the others get ‘fraid and soft. And this man call down the power of God. And this man chant and pray and exorcise those demons from that mountain. And this is what the bishop want to run the man away for. This is what the bishop say he blaspheming for. This is what he say he worshipping false god for, that blasted Irish clown. Is this he want the Blessed Father to swear he not going and do again. And this is why the Blessed Father get defiant and say he ain’t do nothing wrong and that if he do something wrong well that is between he and God, and that the babalao praise the same God as everybody else but only in a different way, and that if a Catholic can pray with a Protestant then a priest should be able to pray with a babalao, and that if the bishop would only take the time to learn some sancoche then he would understand, and that he, Eddie Blackwell, done work it out with God already. And that is when the bishop pass his place and call the man who save this place a little nigger boy. And that is when the Blessed Father look at him hard—with his hands behind his back—and the power of the Lord came down from heaven and drop the bishop hard.

And those wickeds went and make a story that the Blessed Father uppercut the man and knock him cold—those liars and cowards and thieves who wasn’t even in the room to see what happen. Some even say they heard the Blessed Father tell the bishop to kiss his ass before he lick him down.

Is lie they telling. Is scandal, slander, blasphemy and lie. For Father Eddie is a saint. And saints don’t say bad words like that.

 

III.

“SHIT!”

The Cordoba was now at sea, and Father Eddie, hung over from the binge of drinking he’d prescribed himself to clot the pain of separation, had risen from a dream in which he’d seen himself in bed with Eugenia at the moment that his name was called for judgment by the Lord, and had rammed his head against the upper bunk.

The ample berth, cream with a barrel roof and panel work that ended midway up the walls, was on a middle deck and had a little porch. For furniture there was a pair of bunks in brass with railings, a writing table, dresser and a chair; and between the bunks, a vaguely Oriental rug, four feet wide, in a scheme of red and blue, a frame within a frame of floral patterns with a geometric border of abstracted blooms.

Groggy, Father Eddie stood between the beds and splashed his face with water at the sink—a slab of white ceramic with a pair of swan-neck faucets mounted on a cabinet with double doors. In the mirror, which was oval with a heavy wooden frame, he finger-combed his hair and lit a fresh Cohiba, looking like the gangster many used to think he would become. Against the background of the walls in wood and cream, his skin a freshly plated gold from sailing round the island under pressure from the sun, he exuded all the lush immortal magic of a sepia tone.

In another generation—this is too ambitious—in another three or four, Eddie Blackwell could have been a movie star. But in the time in which he lived, his features were perceived as faults, the evidence of sins unseen.

As a child, born of a frightened Irish girl in a home for wayward mothers, as a waif raised by nuns among orphans, he’d always felt untrue. As a boy, there was a way that people looked at him—as if he were a griffin or a dragon or some other creature thrown together from ill-fitting parts, as if he were a thing that struck the mind with alternating wonderment and fear—that made him doubt himself, that made him see himself as odd, the camel in the beauty show for horses.

And now, as he smoked and posed before the mirror in his priestly robes, he felt again inside his guts the inter-knotted feelings of that complicated boy whose code of genes was not a language but a dialect, who’d never heard or seen a single word of beauty that he felt that he could gather with assurance to create a wreath of images to crown himself. And he heard the taunts. Mongrel. Half-caste. Yellow. Nigger. Nobody knows my name.

As he often did whenever he re-entered certain moments, he began to see another boy, the boy who teased him till he passed from shock to anger into rage, a rage through which he sank into a calming peace, the kind of peace that comes before you do the kinds of evil things that in their moment feel so right.

That boy knew my name, he thought. He knew my name was Ed. He was my friend. But he kept on saying those things, those really awful things. But he was my friend. He said my mother was a whore. He said my mother was a whore. He said my mother was a … whore. And although I never knew her, well, my mother is my mother and you can’t talk about my mother. Sure enough, I’d told him dirty things about his mother first. But that’s because he said I was a mutt.

He punched and beat and stomped the boy. They sent him to another home. Labeled him “disturbed.” Two years later, after months in isolation, he was sent away to be reformed.

With a twisted smile, the young priest raised his fists and dropped into a crouch, jabbed twice, ducked left and came back with a cross. They didn’t change you kid. They couldn’t do it. You’re damaged. Not broke. Keep your head up. Stick and move. Stick and move. Stick and move.

Still, he felt alone. And it was in this mode of alternating triumph and nostalgia that he felt the rising terror of his need for love, and made a plan to find a girl.

If he were a different man, he thought, as he removed his robes, and if Eugenia were a different girl, oh what they could do. His mind was worming through the fragments of the broken dream to lick the remnants of the pulp.

But beknownst to him, there was no need to satisfy himself with dreams. Eugenia Campbell was already on the ship.

 

IV.

Eugenia Campbell was a chocoblanca, which in sancoche meant “white chocolate,” one of 87 racial flavors recognized on San Carlos, an island fascinated by the subtleties of blood.

Looking at Carlitos you’d be tempted to believe the legend that they fornicated as a kind of art, that they chose their partners based on secret recipes for new eye-pleasing flesh.

Look. There goes a Cuban coffee. Over there, a murky tamarind juice. And standing by that column there is what you’d call a Spanish rice.

Since the end of slavery, the range of tones and textures had expanded. The Indians, Chinese and Arabs had infused the pot with new ingredients—the rum masala, the sugar almond and the lychee-kola cream.

Eugenia’s father, William Campbell, had been born there on the island to a family of Scots, and managed an estate above Seville. Her mother, Emelia Raposo, was a seamstress, a Cuban emigre whose skin, in English, when translated from sancoche meant “finely sanded hardwood varnished with a lustrous blend of logwood honey strengthened with a wash of gold Antiguan rum.”

Until the age of 12, Eugenia had been raised in bourgeois comfort in an airy cottage on a shady lot between the great house and the barracks. Now she lived with her mother in a pair of crowded rooms above a shop in Woodley, the district of the artisans and traders near the market, walking distance from the wharf.

Now, instead of the accountant and the engineer, her peers and neighbors were the potter and the cook. Oh, how she’d come down.

After five years of boiling, her hatred for her mother had congealed to something hard; for it was Emelia who had caused the fall, Emelia who had caused their lives to shatter on the cobbles of the lower-class, where no one had a tutor, or a room of their own, and you rarely found someone who understood King Edward’s English, for no one had been to school—so all you heard around you was sancoche.

In Eugenia’s estimation, Emelia had been careless – hadn’t done the things that women did to get their futures guaranteed. Hadn’t found a way to move from mistress into marriage. Thusly, she had dangled all their lives across the edge of shame. And how easy it had been for them to fall. How easy it had been for William Campbell’s whispered words to blow them over. Last month I met a woman on a trip to Edinburgh, and I’m afraid she’s coming out

And thusly, Eugenia was damaged. Thusly she was left without a suitor with the right amount of suitability. Thusly, she became reduced from future wife to object, a thing of beauty to be ogled. Fingered. Rubbed. The temptation in the heart. The obsession in the dream. But in reality, the woman who would always be returned. The vase that slipped and shattered into powder, which, even after careful reconstruction, would always show against the porcelain, a web of darker lines.

Father Eddie was the one who had restored her. And this is why she gave him her deepest love.

 

In those days, when people weren’t allowed to show their deepest feelings, society replied to shouts of true emotion in the way it did to things defined as dark and savage. Suppress. Displace. Destroy.

The lasting meaning of her discharge; the shock of her abandonment; the regimental way that people she had thought of as her peers so quickly closed their ranks; the ridicule with which she and Emelia were saluted by the folks that had been left behind; all of these combined to break Eugenia’s will. All of this combined to break her down. And as soon as she arrived in Woodley she descended into what for all around her was a living hell.

She cried. She screamed. She cursed. She tried to run away. When they brought her back, she told them that she wouldn’t eat. When they pried her jaws to force her, she began to piss and shit in bed.

Rumors raced. People whispered. Someone told another that Eugenia had been bitten by a rabid dog. Another whispered that the haughty seamstress was receiving payment for some evil done in Cuba. And crowds began to gather, first a little lingering, then a little loitering, then people bringing stools and chairs to catch the drama from a perch below the window. People sitting down.

The owner of the shop on top of which Eugenia lived, Khalid Salan, recently arrived from Trans Jordan, was deeply wounded by the efforts to restrain the girl. Still, he was excited that the bangarang had drawn expanding crowds, throngs of people sharing gossip in the heat, which made them great consumers of his Carling beer and Royal Standard rum.

On hearing from a worker that his daughter was insane, William Campbell wavered, tossed between competing loves.

After days had passed, he broached the subject with Sir Terrence Rawle, who owned the old estate. Over planter’s punch and rum cake on Mt. Pleasant’s tall veranda, sweating horses tethered just below, feet up on the carved, out-folded arms of wood-and-wicker chairs, they reasoned with the openness of men who shared a culture and a past—Campbells had been running businesses for Rawles for generations; had even bought and sold their slaves.

“You should not have started something that you couldn’t finish,” said the older man, whose voice was strongly English even though this was the house in which his father and his father’s father had been born. “Why raise her up to let her down?”

“I loved her, Mr. Rawle,” confessed Eugenia’s father, who gazed in the direction of his cottage with his heavy lidded eyes.

“Don’t confuse yourself with love,” said his gruff adviser. “Don’t even love your wife. There’s admiration. Obligation. Idleness and lust. All of these will stroke the natural urges. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” Eugenia’s father answered feebly. “Yes. I think I do.”

“Go where you need to go, and do what you need to do, but return alone with empty hands. Whatever you do, however you might feel, never bring them up. If you bring them up they’ll bring you down. Stand your ground, young Campbell. Stand your ground. The woman you must marry is coming out. There will be no moping here. Manage.”

Days later, a melancholic William Campbell went to see his priest, an ancient Presbyterian.

“From everything I’ve heard,” the vicar told him, “from you … the help … this is all an open secret … what is done in darkness must come out to light … poor Eugenia isn’t mad. She’s demonic.”

To punctuate, the vicar grabbed his robe with spotted hands and shook it out as if it harbored dirty secrets then went on, “You don’t need a doctor. Or ordinary prayers for that matter. You need an exorcism by a priest. And if I were you, I’d get a Roman Catholic. I think they’re regimented brutes in most respects. What’s the big hurrah about a mass in Latin? What does it really prove? But again, I’ve always been the first to say the Roman Catholics are the most efficient exorcists. Practice, you see. Practice. Look at me, I’m 77 and I haven’t done a single exorcism in my life. They’re tedious to do if you have to stop in mid-spell. One has to memorize the formulas, you see. Speak to Father Eddie, an American who’s just arrived. A good man I’ve heard, but what his countrymen would call a colored, blunt-edged in these matters as they are. I might as well inform you, considering.” He tipped his head and flexed his brows, which raised eight lines of ripples to the fringe of hair that ringed his glistening crown. “I’d suggest one of the others, the old hands, if you will, but it’s my understanding that they’re rummies. Every single one of them.” He leaned forward and stage whispered. “Why Roman Catholics drink so much is another story for another time—perhaps as fascinating as the reason demons have a preference for their souls. The two phenomena are related, obviously. Go see this Father Eddie fellow then. Good luck.”

And this is how Eugenia came to see a stranger in a habit by her bed one morning. He was seated on the only chair that wasn’t broken, and before she could arouse her rage he handed her a note, which he said was from her father.

Knowing that he must have heard about her temper, and believing he would be afraid, Eugenia wrenched her face as tightly as a bud and jerked at her restraints, a rigging made of sailcloth, rope and stud-connected pieces of old bridles.

But instead of discipline, she got a parting of the lips, a smile whose backward peeling, like the skin that holds the life-sustaining pulp and nectar of a fruit, aroused an appetite, which in time would come to have a name.

His voice, its manly timbre, his accent—which, compared to the familiar tart expression of the English had an optimistic tone—triggered something in the fertile garden of her soul.

But the very thing that tenderized her caused an ache—a sudden crack, an elastic sear, and in the moment, this unstable mix of pain and pleasure made her feel unsure, and she began to see the man beside her as threat. In a gentle voice she asked him to untie her. Deceived, he obeyed, and she smashed her fist against his nose, consecrating the unconsciously projected consummation of her newly propagated feelings with blood.

Accustomed to brutality, she rolled into a ball and braced, her emotions changing form so many times they lost their meaning; but instead of hitting her, the one who had become the unsuspecting object of her deepest love attended to his nose and wiped his face and told her in his lowered, smoky voice, which had assumed the tone in which one shares a fact of real importance with a friend, “I am here to comfort you. There is nothing wrong with you. The people in the street will never understand. Give your mother time. She will understand. Your father loves you. Read the letter. It will be hard. But try to understand. I know your hurt. I know your pain. I’ve felt that pain before. There’s nothing wrong with you, Eugenia. I believe this. I know. I understand.”

With this he called down to the crowd for liniments and bandage, and sat beside the girl. She tried to read the letter but she could not see the words beyond the curtain of her tears, and she asked him through her body language if he would kindly read it. And he said the words that he’d dictated to her father, who did not understand that children must be balmed with love.

When the liniments and bandages arrived, he washed her with a flannel in the bed, drawing cooling water from an earthen jar. Weeks of grime had settled in her creases. And when he turned her on her belly he could see her spine as clearly as the stem along a leaf.

Her skin was bruised in places, and he cooed at volumes louder than her cries in every moment that his actions made her wince. But there were so many wounds—scrapes incurred in tussles, scratches she’d induced herself, strap welts from her loving but frustrated mother—that they cooed and cried a symphony to pain.

He couldn’t find her clothes in that shambolic place, and so he cut a length of cooling muslin from Emelia’s many bolts of cloth and made the girl a sort of shift, which he closed with knots along the sides. After this he called downstairs for bread and milk and took advantage of Eugenia’s willingness to give him charge over her body, and administered some food. She took it slowly, sometimes pausing just to hear his deep, peculiar voice.

When she had been cleaned and fed, Father Eddie tidied up the room then asked her nicely if she thought it would be good to send an answer to her father. After 30 minutes of persuasion, she obeyed.

Before leaving, Father Eddie blessed the room, Eugenia’s body and the bed with sprinklings from his flask of holy water, dabbed her in the ritual places with his sacramental oil, handed her an aromatic rosary made of sandalwood—and just to entertain the people looking upward through the window, raised his voice and paraphrased in Latin all the portions of the formulas of exorcism that were floating like exploded fragments in his mind. From that point onward, Father Eddie was the people’s hero and what could only be described as a theological star. But to Eugenia he was nothing but the object of her deepest fascinations, and four years later, on her 16th birthday, she handed him a note:

I gave you my heart on the first day that I saw you. Now my love has fructified. Pluck me at the peak of ripeness. I’m no innocent. I’m a harborer of secret urges that are relevant and pertinent to you. Please don’t pray about this. Hurry. Make haste. If you don’t, I am afraid, I will be spoiled.

By the time of her ascension into Father Eddie’s bed, 12 months after he’d received the note, her sexual juices were well fermented and she’d earned a reputation in some circles as a seamstress whose abilities surpassed her mother, and in others as a good expensive pour, the discrete decanter of a luscious, creamy love whose flavor in the mouth recalled a rounded Chardonnay that teased the palate with its pulsing notes of coconut and cloves.

 

—Colin Channer is the author of the national best-selling novels Waiting in Vain (Ballantine, 1998) and Satisfy My Soul (Ballantine/One World, 2002) and the novella I’m Still WaitingWaiting in Vain was selected as a Critics Choice by the Washington Post Book World, which described it as a “clear re-definition of the Carribean novel.” Channer was born in Jamaica and lives in New York and is the founder and artistic director of Jamaica’s Calabash International Literary Festival. In the spring of 2004 Ballantine will publish Passing Through, a daring collection of interrelated stories set on the fictional island of San Carlos.

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BOMB 86, Winter 2004

Featuring interviews with Brooke Alfarmo, Stanley Greaves, Santiago Sierra, Erna Brober, Jorge Volpi and Martin Solares, and Jesus Tenreiro-Degwitz and Carlos Brillembourg.

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