a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
For Michael Witter, Andrew S. Lamm, Diana McCaulay, Susan Koenig, and the Cockpit Country Warriors
Hope is a strange thing, I thought as I waited in the parking lot of the Sangster’s International Airport. It was hope that kept me going even after my marriage had fallen apart and a fire had destroyed the last samples of Bursera Aromatica in the lab where I work. The fire was a setback, not only because of the deadlines with our investors, but we were also in a race against climate change, which was destroying the habitat of Bursera Aromatica, or Siboney as they called it in Jamaica.
The samples had shown promise in developing a treatment to control blood sugar, and I could hear the desperation in Dr. Beckford’s voice when he called me into his office.
“Andrew, if the investors get spooked before we collect our money from the insurers, we’ll have to shut down the lab,” he said. “A few investors are also interested in water sources for mining.”
I’d been waiting for two hours at the airport and I’d already started searching for a taxi when Beeline, my driver, finally arrived.
“All right, boss, I hope me not too late,” said Beeline after he pulled up in the hotel’s SUV. “A whole heap a truck on the road.”
A small, wiry man with deep-set eyes, Beeline helped me to unload my backpack and equipment into the back of the SUV.
“We set,” said Beeline and we set off towards the Cockpit Country.
The engine groaned up the hill towards the hotel, which was a few hundred yards away from where my great-great-grandmother, Rebecca Gallimore, had died from grief after my great-great-grandfather, Colonel William Gallimore, was killed in the Second Maroon War.
“We reach,” said Beeline, and he parked in the hotel’s driveway. You hungry?”
“Am I the only guest here? The place looks deserted.”
“Bad season. Only me, you, and Sharon, the manager, is here. Everybody else passing through,” said Beeline. “You hungry?”
“I will see what I can rustle up for you.”
I headed to my room and unpacked my luggage while Beeline went to the dining room. But before I checked my equipment, I made the obligatory call to my father. We hadn’t spoken since my split with Laura, and he made a comment about how he had honored his vows of “for richer or poorer” with my mother.
It was easy for my father to say that. He’d been married to my mother for forty years. Until his retirement, he’d been an accountant for the largest bauxite company in Jamaica, so he didn’t have the many quarrels about money that finally broke my marriage.
Still, I made the call, which I regretted when he answered the phone.
“It’s near to my bedtime, son. You couldn’t call in the morning?”
“I’m sorry, Dad. I’m only here for a few days.”
“So when are you going to visit me?”
“I’ll try to visit you soon,” I replied. But what I meant was “soon come.”
I hung up the phone and looked around the room. I checked the map I’d downloaded and went downstairs to see what Beeline was up to.
By the time I got downstairs, Beeline had already set up a table and chairs in the dining room. The clatter of dominoes signaled that a new game was starting.
“What took you so long? The patty almost cold,” said Beeline. “Pull up a chair beside Sharon. We been playing cutthroat. But now, let’s get down to business.”
Sharon, a buxom woman in her mid-thirties, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, “Straight Outta Moore Town,” made space.
Beeline gave me a plate with two patties and a Red Stripe. I bit into the flaky niceness of the patty and sipped the beer. It was good to be home.
While I ate, Beeline stepped towards an unlit section of the dining room and shouted, “Adisa, come here. Come meet me friend.”
At first, I couldn’t see anything. All I heard were footsteps until Adisa emerged from the darkness.
A petite woman with shoulder-length dreadlocks, Adisa wore a plain yellow T-shirt, jeans and hiking boots. The way she walked, so slowly and purposefully, made me think she was a woman who was used to having her own way. But then, she laughed, and everything changed.
Beeline shuffled the cards, allowed us to take ours, and once we were finished, he scooped up the rest.
Beeline posed a double-six, and I played a six-five. Sharon probably didn’t have any fives because she played six-three. Adisa slapped a double-five on the table. Her brass bangles clattered against her wrist.
“So how long are you going to be here, Tourist Man,” asked Adisa.
“Tourist Man? I was born and lived here until I left for college in Miami. And even then, I came back every summer until my mother died.”
“But you don’t live here, right? You’re a tourist.”
“She got you,” said Beeline.
Beeline didn’t have any fives because he played four-three. I put down my double-four. Sharon scratched her head and played four-one. Adisa turned the game and slipped a five-one at the furthest end of the table. Beeline faced fives on both ends.
“Pass,” said Beeline.
Sharon slapped a two-blank on the table after I’d played a five-blank and Adisa played five-two. Beeline was facing fives again.
“Pass, again,” said Beeline and glared at Sharon.
Adisa played a five-two, which turned the game around. I’d have to trust Adisa. I played the last five in my hand, which left Adisa in control of the fives.
“Andrew, you changed the game on me again? Pass.”
After Sharon played four-two and Adisa threw her double-two on the table, Beeline rearranged the cards in his hands.
“Now we’re talking,” said Beeline and he played six-two. “I’m setting a trap for all of you.”
“You know what the ancestors say about setting a trap for other people?” asked Adisa. “If you’re digging a hole for someone, you better dig one for yourself.”
“Which ancestors are you talking about?” I asked.
“The ones I love,” she said.
“Pass,” I said.
Sharon played six-one, and Adisa put down another double. Beeline smiled. He played three-one, and I played a double-three. Sharon passed. Adisa had to make a decision.
After counting the cards, Adisa blocked the game. We counted the totals, but Adisa already knew she’d won. Beeline had sixes, and the only cards left were the twos and blanks, which didn’t matter because Adisa had the two lowest remaining blanks: double-blank, and three-blank.
The games went by as quickly as the beers we drank, and a quick camaraderie formed among us—even though we’d beaten Sharon and Beeline six-love.
I imagined when I saw Beeline in the morning, he was going to say that he was distracted by Sharon, who was playing footsie with him under the table. But I know we beat them fair and square.
“Come on, Sharon. We need to cool down,” said Beeline.
Beeline tried to get up, and he almost fell. Sharon went around to his side of the table and steadied him. He put his arm around Sharon’s neck, and she held him around the waist. I watched them as they staggered toward the exit.
“What do you do, Adisa?” I asked, trying to make small talk as I put the dominos into the wooden box.
“I work at the research center in Windsor.”
My ears perked up. I didn’t want to tip her off about anything that I was doing.
“What do you do, Tourist Man?” asked Adisa.
“Biotech. I’m researching local plants.”
No one was supposed to know what I was doing, but with the equipment I’d brought it would difficult to hide what I was doing from someone in the field.
“Anything in particular?” asked Adisa.
“Bride’s Tears. We think it’s a possible treatment for diabetes,” I said. Which wasn’t exactly a lie—we had conducted some experiments with Bride’s Tears.
“Interesting. A treatment, but not a cure,” said Adisa. “Why are you interested in finding a treatment for diabetes?” Adisa asked.
“My mother died from diabetes complications.”
Alma, my mother, a top lecturer in economics at UWI, lost her left leg, then her eyes, and finally her memory to diabetes. She was the proof that I needed for the tentative hypothesis that some scientists had forwarded, which linked Alzheimer’s to Type 2 diabetes.
“I don’t think you’re telling me everything, Tourist Man. But that’s only to be expected from tourists like you.”
Adisa laughed again. Pure joy. She was laughing so hard that tears were welling up in her eyes.
“Are you always this serious, Tourist Man? I was only teasing.”
“You could’ve fooled me.”
“I did, didn’t I?” she replied. Adisa handed me a beer and took the last one for herself.
“Cheers,” I said, and we clinked our bottles together.
“So, Tourist Man, what are you really doing down here?”
“I didn’t know you were that sensitive.”
“Look who’s teasing who.”
“Good one,” she said. “But truthfully, why are you here? You’re not collecting Bride’s Tears. And I like calling you Tourist Man. Or would you prefer, Brown Man?”
“Suit yourself. But how do you know I’m not collecting Bride’s Tears?”
“You could’ve stayed in Florida for that. It has to be something else.”
“You’re full of surprises, aren’t you?”
“And we’ve just met,” she said. Adisa took another gulp of beer. “But you haven’t answered my question. I could help you.”
She was persistent, but I wasn’t going to give any information to someone who could be a potential rival.
“Let’s say, I’ll figure this out myself.”
“Knock yourself out, Tourist Man.”
Adisa gulped the rest of her beer, strolled over to a recycling bin, and dropped her bottle inside.
Before she left, Adisa said, “Don’t forget to recycle. We’re in an environmentally sensitive area.”
Turning in my chair, I watched Adisa as she sashayed down the driveway. It seemed as if she was soaking in the night air. She loosened her bandanna, shook her head, and her dreadlocks swirled around her shoulders.
I left the bar and stumbled back to my room. My body ached as I climbed the stairs and opened the door. I needed a good night’s rest if I was going to be ready for my hike into the Cockpit Country.
At nine o’clock the next morning after I’d had my breakfast, I went back to my room. The GPS on my phone was going to be useless, so I slid my map into my backpack and went downstairs, where I met Beeline. He told me that Adisa had borrowed the SUV to organize a march against the mining companies.
“This is ruining my plans. But we’re still going, no matter what,” I said.
“Yes, boss,” said Beeline. But he wasn’t thrilled.
We walked down to the gates and followed yellow flags along the road that led to the Windsor-Troy Trail. We hiked until we reached a cotton tree.
“Plenty duppy here,” said Beeline.
Duppies. Towards the end of her life, my mother swore that we had “sweet blood,” and that duppies were following our family. They clung to her as if she had picked up a burr along the way, and no matter how much she’d tried to rid herself of them with bush baths, as if she were washing herself after a stroll, she’d glimpse them while she was looking through the window at her garden, grinning among the hydrangeas.
“Let’s go this way,” I said, and pulled out my map.
“I don’t think so, boss. That way, if you don’t know where you going, death is waiting for you.”
“But I have a map.”
“You think map can save your life?”
Beeline kissed his teeth and turned east. I stood my ground.
“I paid you for the day. We’re going the way that I say we are.”
Beeline tightened his lips, and his nostrils flared when he furrowed his brow.
“Who you think you talking to? I’m old enough to be your grandfather. I did think you was different from them jancro tourist who tief everything and lef we dry.”
“I’m not here to tief anything.”
“Man, go to hell. Either we go back to the hotel, or we go the way I know.”
Beeline waited for a few minutes, and when I didn’t follow, he disappeared into the bush. I checked my map and clambered up a hill until I came to a small farm with rows of cucumbers, yams, and ganja growing alongside tomatoes.
A mosquito landed on my neck. But before I could swat it, it was gone. The Gallimore curse of “sweet blood” was still alive.
“Wha you a do here?” said a voice from behind me. When I turned around, a dreadlocked man with a machete in his left hand was standing ten feet away from me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to–”
“Sorry, me raas. I should chop you.”
I didn’t need another warning. I ran away as fast as I could, but he wasn’t chasing me. His shouts trailed behind me like a threat.
My backpack was weighing me down, but I wasn’t stopping until I was far away from the Rastaman’s plot.
And the next thing I knew, I was falling.
I held on to anything that I could. Anything. But I kept falling into the darkness.
When I came to, Adisa was staring into my eyes. She cradled my head in her hands.
“Don’t move,” she said. “You have a bump on your head.”
I touched the right side of my head and felt a bump the size of a guinep near my temple.
“You fell into a sinkhole,” she said. And then, she looked into my eyes. “They’ve killed many English soldiers and inquisitive tourists.”
My head was hurting too much for me to laugh. I mustered a smile.
“How did you find me?”
“Beeline told me where he’d left you. I followed your trail to Ras Michael’s, and he told me what happened.”
“You mean the Rastaman, who tried to kill me?”
There was that laughter again. It seemed as if I was a constant source of amusement for her.
“Ras Michael was having fun with you. He wouldn’t hurt a mosquito. You’re a bundle of nerves, aren’t you? What are you so scared of?”
“You should be more scared of the people who want to destroy this place.”
“Where am I?”
“This was a place where my people could get clean water.”
“Do you know the way out?”
Adisa picked up her bag and then eased my backpack over her shoulders. We wandered through a labyrinth of caverns that were part of the aquifer.
“Back there, you said, ‘my people.’ You’re a Maroon?”
“Born and bred, Andrew.”
“You called me, Andrew. Does that mean you like me?”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Tourist Man,” she said, and led me to the mouth of the cave. A flight of swallows darted across the horizon.
“We’ll have to move faster,” she said. “The afternoon rains are coming.”
“I don’t want to fall again.”
“You won’t. But I need you to be honest with me. What are you looking for?”
I hesitated for a minute. But then, I realized that I needed her help.
“I’m collecting samples of Siboney.”
“I know exactly where they are.”
Adisa handed me a yellow poncho from her bag and slipped on her own.
“The color suits you,” I said.
“It should. It’s my mother’s color.”
I didn’t know what she meant, and my head was throbbing too hard for me to guess. I kept quiet on the way to the SUV, which was parked on the side of the road. We jumped in, and Adisa drove me back to the hotel.
“Get some rest,” she said. “We’ll meet tomorrow at nine for breakfast.”
My head was hurting so badly that I barely heard the rest of what she was saying. When we got to the hotel, I climbed out of the SUV, went to my room, took two aspirins, and flopped onto the bed.
“Andrew, how’s it going?” asked Dr. Beckford, who called me at eight in the morning. I still had a dull pain in my head from the fall.
“I’m collecting the samples later today,” I said.
“Any luck with a water source?”
I thought about it and weighed my options. Dr. Beckford was my employer, but I didn’t want to betray Adisa’s trust.
“Nothing yet, but I’ll let you know if I find anything.”
I hung up the phone, got dressed, and went down to the dining room where Adisa was waiting for me.
“I think you should apologize to Beeline,” she said.
“For what? I hired him for the day, and he didn’t fulfill his contract.”
“He’s upset about how you talked to him. This is a dangerous place, and he was trying to keep you safe.”
“I know, but I had you looking out for me.”
“But I may not always be there. So apologize for me, nuh?”
I picked up my plate and went over to the counter where Sharon was picking up the Sternos. I held the kitchen door open for her and glimpsed Beeline backing out of the exit.
When he saw me, Beeline turned and headed towards the driveway. For a man who said that he could’ve been my grandfather, he moved quickly. I finally caught up with him.
“Beeline, hold up.”
“What you want, boss?”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have talked to you like that.”
“You sorry or Miss Adisa sorry?”
“All right,” he said. “Peace and love.”
I was relieved. It wasn’t a full acceptance, but it was a truce.
As I approached the SUV, Adisa strolled towards me. She was carrying a cap with the logo, “Accompong, Jamaica,” and she placed it gently on my head.
“You kept your word. You’re not a full Maroon yet, but you’re getting there. Walk with me,” she said.
“We aren’t taking the SUV?”
“I know another way.”
I slipped my backpack over my shoulder and followed Adisa up a ravine behind the kitchen. John Crows wheeled overhead.
“Before we go any further, there’s one question I have to ask,” she said.
“When you develop your drugs and become rich and famous, what are you going to do with the money?”
I could’ve said that I was going to show Laura that I could make enough money to be an equal partner in our marriage. But I realized how foolish I’d have sounded if I told Adisa that I was doing all this to get back with a woman who’d moved on with her life.
“I’d move back here and build a home in these hills.”
“You’re not just saying that, are you?”
“This is where, for better or worse, my navel string and my mother are buried.”
“You’re not half bad,” she said, and touched the brim of my cap.
As we made our way through the bushes, I noticed how Adisa moved among the plants, touching them almost reverentially.
“We’re going up a little further,” she said. “There’s something I want to show you.”
Scrambling up another forty yards, Adisa pointed towards the west. Even from where we’d been standing, I could barely breathe.
I wish I hadn’t seen what Adisa showed me. If anyone had asked me to describe a Jamaican hell, I would’ve taken them to that spot. The only thing missing from the red lake, created by the toxic runoff from the bauxite factories, was the writhing bodies of the eternally damned howling in pain. But here, they were probably twisting and retching behind the closed doors of houses downwind from the bauxite plant–a metal monster in the midst of the blighted landscape.
“This is what I am fighting against,” said Adisa.
“I never knew,” I said and wondered why my father had never mentioned this in any of our conversations. How was this possible in a country that loved to advertise its balmy beaches and sun drenched savannahs? For better or worse, we were all Maroons now.
Bowing my head, we continued hiking up what seemed like the highest point on the trail. The sound of a chainsaw echoed through the valley and sent a pandemonium of parrots screeching towards the green canopy that blanketed the summit.
I was sweating from the climb while Adisa continued straight ahead. She seemed to grow stronger with each step while I limped along behind her.
“I need to rest,” I said. “I’m dying in this humidity.”
“Push on a little more. We’ll soon be there.”
I was hoping that she wasn’t using “soon” in the same way that I’d used it with my father. We scrambled down a slight slope and into the cleft of a hillock that faced the east.
Down in the valley, a cluster of Siboneys seemed to burst out of the earth. I was about to run down the side of the hill, but Adisa stopped me.
“You can’t rush down like that. I have to ask for permission from the ancestors.”
Adisa took a bundle of sage from her backpack. She cleared the space of any dry leaves that could cause a fire and whispered a prayer in a language I didn’t understand. Then, she lit the sage and waved it around her head and body. Next, she lifted her left leg and, afterward, her right leg and repeated a similar circular motion.
“Stay here,” she said. “I’ll gather the samples for you.”
“Why can’t I come with you?”
“This is holy ground, Andrew. But the people who made that red lake can’t understand that. The bauxite that they are clawing out of the earth is like the blood in our veins, and whatever they put back is not enough for us to live. So, please, stay here for me.”
“All right,” I said, and looked around for somewhere to sit. I was intrigued, and found an old banyan where I watched Adisa work her magic.
Kneeling under the branches, Adisa gathered seeds near the roots and repeated another prayer before she cut the flower, stem, and leaf samples. She gently made an incision into the bark, and the resin, which contained the highest concentration of triterpenes, flowed like honey into the vials she held below the green wound.
Once she was finished, Adisa blessed and covered the wound with a paste she’d brought with her. She placed a few of the seeds in my palms.
“This is gold,” she said. “Guard them with your life.”
“Thank you,” I said, and leaned in to give her a hug.
“What are you doing?” she asked and stepped back.
“Is it okay to give you a hug?”
“Yes, but no funny stuff, Tourist Man.”
I hugged Adisa, and when we pulled apart, she patted me on my shoulder.
“Let’s go, Andrew,” she said. But her tone had changed.
In a parallel universe, Adisa and I could have been friends, and given time, maybe we could have gone beyond that.
I looked at the seeds and thought about the overdue conversation that I needed to have with my father.
“Whenever you build your house, you should visit me at the research center. We could use the help from someone like you,” said Adisa.
“Someone like me? You mean a tourist, like me? I will try.”
“No trying. Only doing.”
“Is that the wisdom of the ancestors?”
“Something like that,” she said. “Something like that.”
And then, she smiled, which me gave all the reasons to hope.
Born in Jamaica, Geoffrey Philp is the author of five books of poetry, two novels, two collections of short stories, and three children’s books. Through DNA testing, Philp recently discovered his Jewish ancestry and his poem, “Flying African,” has been accepted for publication in New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust. He is currently working on a collection of poems, “Distant Cousins.”