A Day in the Whitey Tree
By Richard Rupnarain
It was still six weeks to go before school reopened for the new school year but for most of the kids boredom had already crept into the neighborhood. Manni Ram was perhaps the most bored of them all.
Part of the reason for his boredom was that most of the other kids in his neighborhood had been sent up the East Coast or down the East Bank of the Demerara River to spend a few weeks with relatives. He, on the other hand, had no one to visit for the holidays. His mother being an only child had no relatives and his father was at variance with all of his siblings. When the old man was fifteen his dying mother gave him her meager jewelry collection as a token of her gratitude to him for taking care of her during her prolonged bout with dysentery. The collection did not have any economic value but when his siblings, who had long since kept their distance after the old lady started having uncontrollable attacks of diarrhea, heard of the bequest they threw down the gauntlet and declared war and he, being the pacifist he was, never fought back, but simply kept his distance and lived in self-imposed isolation. Unfortunately the filial war had its effects on Manni who, although he had fifteen cousins, was not allowed to have any contact with them and on that muggy August afternoon more than ever he felt the effects of the domestic feud.
It was ninety-five degrees, humid, and not a cloud in the sky when he waded through the waist high fever grass brush on his way to the ungainly Whitey tree some four hundred yards behind his parents home. His father was at work in the estate and his mother was taking her well-earned siesta in the hammock under the house after completing her daily laundry, cleaning and cooking chores. For fear that he might rouse her from sleep and incur the penalty of having to prepare two more banks for pak choy bhaji or having to make another trip to the ball field for fresh cow dung, or trek to the sawmill for another rice bag full of shaving for the chicken pen, he tiptoed his way through the dense grass like a leopard stalking a prey and took refuge in the old Whitey tree.
The ten-year old tree was so named because it bore an elongated and segmented fruit the locals called Whitey. The fruit was about six inches long, green on the outside and its dark brown seeds, the size of a red kidney bean, were covered over with a sweet gelatin-like tissue overlaid with a fluffy white substance. It was quite a challenge to remove the tissue from the seed using bare teeth but the prize was well worth the effort. Nevertheless, as sweet and enticing as the fruit was it was not the main reason Manni made the tree the object of his daily pilgrimage. Beyond insulating him from trouble at home the tree provided him with a unique vantage of every home in the small community and appeased his insatiable desire for insight into the lives of people. Of course his mother was not at all happy with his precociousness and always warned him of the consequences.
"You too fast!" she would gripe, "you want know everything! What dem wear? Why them wear dat? How much it cost? Where dem buy it? Where them going? And then she would hand down her summary judgment. You know fast fly does dead in cow batty? Must larn for mind you own business."
But despite the threat of death in bovine excrement Manni could not curb his curiosity. He had to ask questions because he wanted answers but did not like to read any book that had words. That midday he climbed one branch higher and straddled the limb with his shoeless feet and versatile toes while bracing his back against a fork in a branch. The foliage in the Whitey tree was not as dense as that of the mango tree and so he juxtaposed himself to a place where he could see all of his surroundings.
Just behind him was the ball field, approximately half a mile wide and almost a mile in length. Over the years it had become an alternate pasture for cows, sheep and the occasional labaria, a little but venomous snake. During the rainy season the cows would leave huge holes where they stood while grazing and come dry season the ubiquitous holes hardened into ankle busting craters. Nevertheless, for some people like Mr. Wilson, the stable master, the cow holes were not a deterrent and that midday he was once again attempting to break in a stubborn filly for his white boss.
More popularly known as Willo, Mr. Wilson was a wiry black man about forty-five years of age with boundless stamina and unlimited patience. He was never seen without a feathered Wilson hat and long boots and, much to the annoyance of barbers, he never had to shave or got a haircut as the hair on his head and face refused to grow since the day he stopped growing in height. Other than that his life remained pretty much a mystery. No one was sure if he had any children, or if he was ever married, as he lived alone in the small quarters above the stables. Besides, he hardly spoke to anyone and, when he did, it was with brevity and succinctness.
Willos main love was horses and he was content to be placed in charge of the stables. The white overseers all rode horses to the backdam and for Mr. Wilson there was no greater pleasure than to see the boss happy when he came early in the morning for his horse. He would have the horses washed, groomed and saddled and would even talk to the animals before they left the stable. Whatever he said to them was anyone's guess but as far as he was concerned the horses understood his every word. However, in recent months the overseers added a new task to his already long list of duties that took his job to new heights and to a greater degree of danger.
The white planters complained that the present contingent of horses was growing old and slow and needed replacement and, unfortunately for Mr. Wilson, they acquired some wild horses at a minimal cost and assigned to him the unenviable task of breaking in the animals. Willo complied, either counting it as a way to secure his job, or perhaps nothing more than just wanting to please his employers. In any event he obviously never anticipated the enormity of the task. It was three weeks since he began to tame this particular horse and it would appear that he was making very little progress. In the first few days a casual observer would think he was challenging the horse to a foot race as he must have logged over fifteen miles chasing after the beast. When the horse had enough fun being chased by a middle-aged man and mercifully allowed him to mount it was but for a few seconds. Within minutes the horse reared and tossed him to the ground. He was on the ground so often he must have gleaned intimate knowledge of every species of fauna and flora, and of bugs and reptiles that made the field their home, and, of course, the anatomy of the horses underbelly. The horse had bucked and thrown him at will into the tall grass, into mud holes, in bushes and trenches. He was rammed against the chain-link fencing and tossed on a few occasions into the four-foot ditch along the perimeter of the field. And when he tried talking to the horse as he did to those in the stables it was to no avail as the horse did not understand creolese and he did not understand horse speak for "give up." Nevertheless, for him it had become a personal challenge and he continued every day after work in his effort to break the horse. Unfortunately, to date he had succeeded only in breaking his own left arm, right leg, nose bridge, jawbone, two ribs and his pride. Manni could see bandages on most of the exposed parts of his body and surmised that at the rate he was being bruised and battered he was only days away from becoming a certified mummy. He observed with angst as Willo tried to mount the horse for the hundredth time that afternoon and prayed that the horse might finally reward him, if not for his stupidity, then for his perseverance.
On the south side of the field was a twenty-foot wide by five feet deep trench that meandered its way around the factory and into the cane fields. The trench was jammed with three rows of steel punts loaded with sugar cane waiting in line for the gantry lift to move them unto the scale where they were weighed before being released unto the conveyor belt. Two young half-naked coolie boys were stealing sugar cane, biting at the ends of the cane to test for sweetness before making their selections. When they saw the chain boys coming after them they grabbed the canes under their arms and sped towards a hole in the chain-link fencing. Manni could not overhear what the chain boys were saying but he could tell from their gesticulations that it was not a goodbye, see-you-soon wave. The two boys found safety beyond the fence and took a break to bundle the loot on their heads before making their way across the field to their homes. They lived in the soot-covered bungalows at the west end of the field. Manni could hear their highpitched laughter as they boasted of yet another successful heist.
Next door to Mannis house was that of the Morris Williams family. How an East Indian man obtained a name such as Williams was a mystery no one cared to investigate. After all, Mr. Williams was a haughty fat man with a repulsive spirit who shunned every opportunity for social interaction. He wore a moustache so thick that it covered his lips and made him into a virtual ventriloquist. On the rare occasion that he did speak he would cause people to look around as they could not tell whose voice it was they heard. Manni's mother had long since rendered her verdict on her unsociable neighbor.
"Them briga," she would say, "them think them better than abie. Since me know that man he mouth always swell like paccoo as if abie do am something. And he get mo biggety since he get mota bike. He na know he look like monkey pan iron. And he wife, she is a real jook-a-yak. Anything you buy she gat to buy too. And them pickney, that bai in poticlar a wan prappa goormassaha. He a pass you pan de street and if he na haul een he mouth you cant pass."
Strangely, Mannis mother never said anything good or bad about the girl. She was about eleven and she was pretty. Her eyebrows were thick and dark like her fathers moustache and she had her mothers fair complexion. Manni did not want to tell anyone but he had feelings for her. Once when he was watering the garden she was sitting on her back steps and their eyes crossed. She smiled at him and he was embarrassed. But from that day and that smile he was convinced she liked him.
But there was someone else who liked her even more. Unfortunately it was her goormassaha brother who had only carnal intentions. As usual the two of them were downstairs that midday while the mother either slept or was glued narcissistically to her mirror. On that occasion they were observing with keen interest the two Dobermans as they engaged in a mating ritual. The boy appeared puzzled as to why only a few seconds before the male appeared excited and dominant and just moments later seemed passive and pathetic as though he was tricked and trapped. Then to Manni's amazement the children decided to emulate the dogs. Manni was afraid to look for fear he might be caught but then again he was too curious to miss the forbidden sight. The boy dropped his shorts and began to tug at his sister's undergarment when he heard the sound of his mother's sandals flip-flopping down the front staircase. Fearful of being caught they hurriedly restored their clothing and scattered to divergent parts of the yard as though they were disinterested in what the other was doing. Their clueless mother took a seat on the staircase, powdered her nose and began to file and polish her nails.
To the far north and slightly to the west of the ball field was the public school that Manni attended since he was in kindergarten. The school comprised of two wooden two-storied buildings standing next to each other in the shape of an L. The smaller building housed the kindergarten kids, fondly known as Lil ABC and Big ABC. The kindergarten classes were kept on the lower floor and standard one pupils had their classrooms upstairs. The larger building housed the remaining classes up to common entrance level. Come September, Manni will begin his final year at the school. If he passed the common entrance examinations he would be heading off to Georgetown on a scholarship from his fathers employer. If he qualified he might still go to Georgetown but to a less reputable school. If he failed the exam he would wind up in the local secondary school. He was excited yet apprehensive about returning to school. Excited because it was his final year and the prospect of going to a town school was something he dreamed about. Apprehensive because he hated Mr. Gibson, the common entrance teacher.
Everyone knew Mr. Gibson was a serious man who believed the wild cane was the most effective learning aid, capable of beating sense into the most obtuse mind. Unfortunately Mr. Gibson never had a chance to test his hypothesis on Willo, who coincidentally had resorted to whipping the obdurate horse with a stem from a black sage bush. On the brighter side Manni was now eligible to wear a buckta, a thick nylon brief that afforded much insulation against Mr. Gibsons learning aid if padded correctly. He made a mental note to consult with Herman James, a classmate who had openly voiced his ambition to become the next stable master. For Herman, caning was a daily ritual. He was always late, never did his homework, and was in constant detention for cheating. His density had even cost the English teacher his job. Last term in English class Mr. Kooblall asked a kid named Surujballi to give him a noun. Sore BT as he was more popularly known, slapped the desk in front of him and confidently said, Desk! Sir. Then Mr. Kooblall moved to Herman who sat beside Sore BT and asked him the same question. Herman! Give me another noun! Without premeditation Herman slammed his fist on the desk beside his and said, Another desk, sir! The response forced a forbidden expletive out of Mr. Kooblalls lips and eventually led to his termination. Nevertheless, Manni was sure he could obtain some valuable advice from Herman who with his vast experience could narrate a bestseller on Caning for Dummies.
The school was surrounded by a six-foot high chain link fencing and the iron gates were padlocked. Yet, to no ones surprise a few kids had scaled the fence and were inside the yard playing taw, using marbles fashioned from awara seeds. Whenever the wind changed direction and blew in his face Manni could hear the occasional outbursts of one-taw, two-taw, "tixing," and "buck sick." Buck sick was a sure prelude to a fight and Manni knew it was only a moment before the amicable marbles players would be transformed into merciless pugilists.
To the west of the school was an abandoned two-storied house. Its once bright pink exterior had faded to expose an aging greenheart frame and its curtainless windows revealed an eerie darkness within its walls. Though significantly larger than all the other houses it remained unoccupied for the past two years. The last two families to live there claimed that the house was haunted by the spirits of Dutch men whose graves were disturbed when the house was built. They claimed to have heard footsteps walking up and down the stairs and to have seen doors opening and closing of their own accord, and they were convinced that the sickness, domestic feuds, and financial reverses they experienced while living in there was the work of the evil spirits. Now the house had become the habitation of bats, rats and black birds, and the subject of wake-house jumbie stories. Manni felt the hair stand on end on his arms as he remembered some of the tales of dread his grandfather had told him about the house.
A strange rustling in the bushes next to the mango tree interrupted his fixation with the boys and their impending duel. The sounds of fluttering wings and animated chipping moved him to dismount quietly from his perch and move in stealthily for a closer look. At first he could not believe his eyes at the scene before him. Never before had he seen so many birds in one place. He reckoned there must have been hundreds of birds, ranging from the Old Witch or Jumbie Bird to the small bird he knew as Red Breast. The birds were perched mainly along the chain link fencing though some nested on the black sage bushes at the foot of the fence while a few settled in the mango tree. The kiskadees and blue sakis kept flitting back and forth between the fence and the black sage bushes and appeared really agitated over something. But what? Manni could not see anything but birds so he moved closer to the black sage bushes. But the birds saw him and took flight to the mango tree. All save one, a little house wren, about three inches long. It was brown save for its pale white underbelly and appeared to be trapped in gum placed on the top of one of the posts that supported the fence. The bird catchers, mostly teenagers and younger canecutters would set pieces of gum on the posts next to bird seed to ensnare the birds. Mostly they hoped to catch robins and towa towas. These birds fetched a hefty price on the market for two reasons. They could chirp out lovely tunes and they were small enough to fit into the standard bird cages. Other birds like Old Witches, kiskadees, blue sakis, and trushes could neither sing nor fit in a cage and were released if caught. Although the house wren was small and could belt out a trill and a few bars it was not a collector's bird. The wren, also known as the God-bird, frequented houses and churches and sang while it foraged for insects and spiders.
Judging from the looks of the trapped wren it appeared as though the hapless bird was stuck for a few hours. It seemed exhausted as though it had made hundreds of attempts to fly out from the sticky trap and, by the time Manni approached it to untangle its feet from the sticky gum, it offered no resistance. Even when he opened his palms the bird refused to fly away. Instead it fell out of his hand and dropped like a stone to the ground. But it was still alive and Manni decided to take it to a puddle with stagnant water and let it drink. At first the bird just looked at the water but when Manni pressed its beak into the puddle it began to drink. A few minutes later the bird took off and headed straight for the mango tree to be reunited with its companions. Manni watched it fly away and felt good about being able to save a little creature in distress.
The blast of the whistle at the sugar factory told him it was three o'clock and it was time for him to make a bicycle trip to the market for fine shrimp, catfish and whatever else his mother needed that afternoon. As if on cue he heard his mother calling out, "Manni, a where you deh, you na hear me calling you bai?"
"Yes, mammy, me a come!" he shouted back as he made his way through the tall grass.
As predicted, the boys in the school yard were fighting, Willo was limping back to the stable with his still unbroken horse, the Goormassha boy next door was still under the house contemplating what might have been if his mother had not interrupted, and the little wren had gained enough strength to fly off into the sunset with its friends. The afternoon had gone by rather quickly but Manni had no regrets at having to leave his place of solitude and to return to his menial chores. After all, he will have six more weeks to observe his neighbors from his monastery, secretly hidden in the foliage of the Whitey Tree.
Richard Rupnarain formerly from LBI, Guyana, lives in Toronto, Canada.
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