The Call of the Firerass
by Richard Rupnarain
Arguably, the cane cutter's task was the toughest but least appreciated field of endeavor on the sugar estates. He was a frontline producer, one without whose labor the industry would grind to a sudden halt, and yet, he was never acknowledged or even fairly compensated for his contribution.
Men like Samsundar Balkissoon, or Sammy as he was known to his colleagues, rose up at 3 a.m., prepared their lunch carriers, trekked several miles barefooted to the cane fields, cut sugar cane under the sweltering heat of the sun in open fields, tied and stacked bundles of cane on their heads and stumbled over cane stumps to load their cane into waiting punts, then dragged themselves back home after nearly ten hours of grinding labor. And they did it all for minimum wage and minimum recognition.
In fact, these men could not even afford to buy the end products of their labor. To keep the colonies always in a state of dependency the colonists ensured that production of sugar never advanced beyond a raw material stage. They shipped the raw grade crystals to Europe where it was refined and returned to the colonies in the form of caramel and chocolate bars, and many other confections, all too expensive for Sammys pockets. At least that was the story his father told him every time he asked for a caramel bar.
Sammys father was also a cane cutter and, like Sammy, he too never had the opportunity to remain in school and further his education. With two younger siblings to care for Sammys dad headed for the fields and worked as a cane cutter as it was the only job he could find that did not require education or experience. He worked hard hoping that his children will have a better chance at life than he did, but those dreams never materialized as the grim reaper stole his life away from him prematurely. Like many cane cutters he became addicted to alcohol and eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver. He was only forty years old at the time of his decease. Sammy's mother passed away less than a year later after a brief struggle with consumption and dysentery.
Now Sammy found himself with the same hand his father had been dealt when he was thirteen. He also had two younger siblings to provide for and no one to look to for assistance. But unlike his father he made a concerted effort to live clean and sober and, if possible, to make a difference in the lives of his fellow cane cutters.
Each and every day, Sammy donned his soot-covered clothes and marched like a soldier out to the cane fields with a pride and dignity rarely found among his colleagues. In fact it infuriated him to know that other parents used his profession as a tool to goad their lazy children to pursue higher education. As a child he heard it all around his neighborhood.
"Don't study, you know where you gon end up, straight in the cane field."
"Gal, you head mad? You want to marry that cane cutter man?"
"You don't have any ambition? Well, you gon cut cane."
"Play! Play! Play! That is all you studying. Well, play me bai, estate always want more cane cutter."
To his frustration Sammy found that there was nothing he could do to remove the stigma from his trade, which, over the decades had devolved to a proverb for disdain, disrespect and deterrence.
Nevertheless, with only an elementary education there were not too many job options available to him. He was too young to drive a hire car and under age for any other job. But he was strong enough to brandish a 22" cutlass so he enlisted in one of the cane cutting gangs.
A month had scarcely passed since he joined the workforce when he began to complain about the terrible working conditions that cane cutters endured and the meager compensation they received for strenuous and hazardous work. He raised the issue of sunstroke and dehydration and insisted that the men be supplied with fresh water in the cane fields as opposed to having to lug their own from home. He also raised the issue of a wage increase and an allowance for boots and uniforms, citing the fact that the soot from burnt cane damaged good apparel and the mostly barefooted men were exposed to the present dangers of rodents, snakes and disease.
While the cane cutters applauded his zealous advocacy, the same could not be said for the white overseers whose prime objective was to squeeze as much profits they could for their overseas investors. As expected they refused to budge on the money issue but relented under pressure to the demand for potable water supply in the fields. They also agreed to meet the workers halfway on the request for uniforms. The estate would supply two pairs of khaki drill pants and one pair of boots but the men were required to find their own shirts. Of course none of the cane cutters were foolhardy enough to believe that the overseers concessions were simply out of a magnanimous heart and it did not take very long for management to confirm the workers suspicion. The overseers retaliated almost instantaneously with conditions of their own. The men were required to meet unreasonable quotas in order to qualify for uniforms and once-for-all end of year bonuses. Besides, the quotas made it difficult for the men to take time off and forced the older and less able-bodied men to spend longer hours in the fields.
To add to their despair the cane cutters were unknowingly being defrauded of their rightful pay. Some of the local payroll clerks found a way to pilfer pennies from each pay packet, either convinced that the cane cutters could not compute their wages to that degree of accuracy, or that they would think the difference was given to one of their four-man gang members. But Sammy was good at arithmetic and could compute his earnings to the penny. However, whenever he did undertake a rare audit of his earnings and came up a few cents short he invariably concluded that the difference went to one of his gang members and never bothered to investigate further.
Meanwhile, at the pay office, Pooran Singh, a veteran payroll clerk, who banked on that very possibility, systematically forked out over a period of three years more than ten thousand dollars in pennies from the pay packets of thousands of hardworking cane cutters. He lived up to the motto of his Nani from Windsor Forest who, in order to motivate him to do work around the house, would say, "Beta, one-one dutty build dam." When the auditor disclosed the fraud and Pooran was taken to court the judge found him guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison. He was last seen with other prisoners at Lusignan, this time building another kind of dam, one that would keep the Atlantic waters from flooding the coast. But Pooran was better at hiding than stealing and the police never recovered a single penny of the stolen loot.
In the meanwhile Sammy continued to work diligently and became the tacit mediator for his comrades. Management, on the other hand kept pulling at their hairs for a way to eliminate him from the role of arbitrator. He was too smart the Britishers said and, like Gandhi, he had the charisma to stir up the people against them. So they planned to neutralize him in a discreet manner. They promoted him to the rank of sardar, the Creole equivalent of a foreman, and assigned him a dual function. He was to marshal gangs to their section of the fields and then monitor their production as they cut and loaded the numbered punts.
What the Englishmen did not bank on was that Sammy was neither a stupid man nor a typical carefree cane cutter. He knew the new position would mean that the cane cutters would be left without a voice and to the mercy of the overseers. Besides, he would have to drop the issues he raised and the very thought of it made him feel like an obsequious hypocrite, and that was the last impression he wanted to convey to his comrades in cutlasses. A week had not elapsed in his new role when he smelled the rat and scribbled his resignation.
A week later, to the delight of his comrades and to the obvious disappointment of the field superintendent, Sammy returned to his former cane cutting gang. Management was clearly not too happy with the turn of events, especially when he resumed his tirade against their "slave mentality" and rallied the workers to resume their demand for transportation to the fields. As far as the overseers were concerned the request was not tolerable and they responded with drastic action.
One morning as Sammy was unloading a bundle of cane into a punt he found himself entangled in the chains that connected the punt to the tractor. The tractor was supposed to stop to allow the "chain boy" to unhook the punt but instead the operator continued to pull at full speed and literally severed Sammy in two pieces. For a few measly dollars and the promise of a promotion, the tractor operator, Mr. Bissoon, did not even show any sympathy for Sammy and watched with turpitude from his tractor as the bloodied body slumped over the punt and slid into the water. The other cane cutters, completely shocked, watched in disbelief as the muddied brown waters turned red with Sammys blood. There was nothing that anyone could do to help as the body was submerged under the punts. They watched helplessly knowing that their friend and advocate was dead.
Sammy's body was never recovered and some blamed it on the flesh eating pirai. But in his memory the overseers allowed his family to plant a headstone on the dam next to where he was killed. The inscription on the cement block read, "Samsundar Balkissoon. 1961 - 1982. Loving son and brother. R.I.P." Unfortunately Sammy was forgotten as quickly as it took the fast growing cana grass to cover the headstone.
Two years to the day after the fateful incident Mr. Bissoon was awakened by an early morning call. He was now a field supervisor, thanks to his conspiracy in Sammys death. He had since lived large on blood money and accumulated a brood of vipers as friends. One of his slimy cohorts was a field charge hand by the name of Buddy Rahaman, better known to villagers as Boosie, a nicknamed tied to him since the day he was caught eating chicken feed. Boosie was Bissoon's alarm clock and every weekday morning at exactly 4:00 a.m. he woke his friend with a whistle and a couple of birdcalls.
It was still pitch black outside and deathly quiet when the call came on the hour that Wednesday morning. In fact Bissoon's mind and body had grown so accustomed to the 4:00 a.m. wake-up call he no longer needed Boosie's assistance. That morning he was already up and dressed for work since 3:45 a.m. He grabbed his two-tiered aluminum lunch carrier and his motorcycle keys and closed the door quietly behind him so as not to awaken his wife and children.
A blast of cool, crisp unpolluted morning sea breeze splashed upon his face like Aqua Velva after-shave lotion and he felt alive and ready to take on the challenges of the day. But had he stayed back just ten seconds longer he would have been better prepared for those challenges for then he would have heard the faint voice of his aji, his father's aging and sickly mother who lived with him and who slept like a cat in the Berbice chair.
"Beta, a where you go? Me only hear one call."
But as fate would have it Bissoon did not hear the voice of the old woman and charged out of the house, excited as a kid to ride his day-old Honda, compliments of his bloody conspiracy in Sammy's murder, and with a single kick of the crankshaft the engine roared and broke the silence of the morning. He revved the throttle back and forth and watched with delight as the counter climbed to the danger zone and then fell back to idling territory. His pillion rider then mounted up behind him and they drove off into the misty morning. Then Bissoon broke the silence.
"Nice morning, eh, pardner?"
"Yes, lil bit cold for me blood though."
"Me tell you to drink carila bitters. It good for your blood. Your blood too thin. That's why you feeling cold."
"Is true thing you say. I feel like the breeze passing right through me."
"I got some carila bush and some fever grass. Come by me after work and collect some."
The streets were still quiet although a constant stream of cane cutters and weeders began to fill in the single-lane road that led to the cane fields. They paused and waved, albeit half-heartedly, as they were overtaken by Bissoon and his friend on their metallic red motorcycle. Then as if under orders from an unseen power they all quickened their pace in an effort to arrive at their posts on time, fully aware that Bissoon will be waiting with his black book for those who were tardy.
Bessie sucked her teeth after the motorcycle disappeared into the night.
"That Bissoon a show off he self with he new mota bike but he want everybody else to walk bare foot. How me sarry Sammy dead! Poor bai, if he been a libin abie woulda get lorry for carry abie a back dam."
Impelled by his new fast bike and a perverse desire to dock pay from tardy cane cutters Bissoon left a cloud of smoke and dust behind him as he raced along the narrow dam that led into the fields. Then, just as he neared the spot where Sammy was killed, his pillion rider patted him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear.
"Stop! Stop for minute!"
"Why?" Bissoon cried aloud in a muffled sound as he tried to combat the dual elements of the wind that rushed into his mouth whenever he tried to speak and the noise from the motorcycle engine.
"Me just want fuh check out something."
Bissoon reluctantly clicked gears into neutral and freewheeled to a stop opposite the place where Sammy died. His rider eased off the bike, walked up to the spot and parted the grass where the headstone was buried. Then Bissoon stood up over the bike and looked surprised.
"Where is the stone? he asked as he stared at the blank spot where the stone was laid. His friend did not answer.
You know it is dark, Bissoon continued, maybe we at the wrong spot."
"No! This is the spot. I know it! Come! Take a look and see for yourself! Look closer, you gon see the mark where the stone was resting."
"But who would move it?"
Bissoon looked puzzled when his pillion rider spoke. "Maybe it was
"What do you mean, you? Why would you move it?"
"Could it be that maybe because I am not dead?"
"What the hell you talking about? Look at me!"
Well, his friend looked at him and the dark-skinned Bissoon became ashen white as the blood congealed in his veins.
"You? Samsundar? What happen to Boosie? But how can that be? Me kill you! You dead!"
"You aji never tell you cat foot soft but he ah scratch bad?"
Bissoon felt his arteries clog and held his chest and backed up a few steps as if he was about to run for his life. But his legs buckled, just like in those dreams where one is being chased by a demon but for some unknown reason just cannot escape, and he collapsed to his knees and beseeched Sammy for a reprieve.
"Me begging you, buddy, give me another chance, please! Is them white man pay me fuh kill you."
"Don't worry, my friend. I will be back for them. For now you and I have some business to take care of. Come! Let me help you up."
Sammy grabbed him by the hand and pulled him to his feet.
"Come on! Don't be afraid. Remember my funeral service? I was there. And so were you."
"Yes, sir, I remember, what about it?"
"Remember Jailall lil boy came up to you and ask you what happen to people after them dead?"
"Yes, I tell him I don't know."
"Right! And remember what he said?"
"No! Me na remember."
"Well, let me refresh your memory. He said that pastor Balram said that good people does go to heaven after them die and bad people does to hell. Now, you remember?"
"Yes, yes, me remember."
"And do you remember what you said to the little boy?"
"I said me na believe in heaven and hell."
"Right! Well, today you gon become a believer!"
With that Sammy grabbed Bissoons trembling hands and jumped with him into the muddy waters at the exact spot where he was killed. By the time the other workers arrived on the scene the ripples had died leaving the warm but rider-less S90 motorcycle as the only evidence of any recent activity. Meanwhile, back at Bissoon's home Boosie sat on the stoop patiently waiting for his friend to come down.
When it was determined later that morning that Bissoon left home for work and that he was nowhere to be found the overseers called a clandestine meeting to discuss the situation. It was a happy turn of events for them as fate had eliminated the only person who could have exposed their plot to murder Sammy. The impotent local police force was called in to comb the trenches for Bissoon's body and, after some four hours of futile searching, the lance corporal concluded that Bissoon should be listed as a missing person until further notice.
In the meanwhile, Bissoon's wife, Bissondaya, had launched her own quest for her missing husband. When she heard the police report that there was no evidence of death or foul play she intensified her search, running frantically back and forth between Uitvlugt and Skeldon estates, and soliciting the help of any and everyone, from obeah men and women to pandits and priests.
That morning she grabbed the newspapers before it could absorb a drop of dew from the grass where it was thrown and she perused every page from top to bottom hoping to find some news on her missing spouse. But all she could see was the running advertisement she placed a week ago. She read it again to see if she had omitted any relevant information.
Reward offered for information on Mr. Ramjit Bissoon.
Loving father and husband.
Missing since May 28, 1984.
Go to nearest police station if you have any information.
Mrs. Bissoondaya Bissoon.
May 30, 1984
As she read the advertisement, her mother-in-law eased herself up from the Berbice chair and made an attempt to speak but felt it prudent to hold her peace. Her daughter-in-law never liked her and treated her contemptuously whenever Bissoon was out of the house. And so, for fear that she might be deemed ungrateful she never said anything to her son. Besides, the last thing her daughter-in-law wanted to hear was that her husband's disappearance had something to do with the supernatural.
The old lady picked up her plate from the floor and mumbled to herself as she dragged her way to the kitchen sink.
"Me weary tell that bai na must go out when he hear only one call night time. Only firerass does call one time. But nah! Hurry, hurry, spile yuh curry. A da wha gat am deh."
Less than six months later two white overseers disappeared from their homes and were never found. The official story released to the press was that their contracts were completed and they had returned to England. But Nani
well, she knew differently.