July and August used to be the best month because that is when school would be out for the summer. Is real funny how they call it summer when Guyana is summer all year round, eh? But back then them thing didn’t matter.
All the children would rest up on the weekend after school close and by Monday they would flood out back on to the street, chasing after all them orange-black butterflies that weave through the village. Then cricket ball would be lashing, skipping-rope bouncing, seesaw squeaking, and all the older boys, the rude-boys on the corner, chatting, chatting, chatting, head together, sensi in their mouth, hand jam into ragged pants-pocket, looking real-real cool to me and me ten-year-old-still-developing brain. That was the summer I went inside and snatch a toothpick from the box on the kitchen table and saunter around the house with it in me mouth, puffing invisible smoke from daybreak to nighttime, until Mohini finally notice and catch me and slap me behind the head and throw away all the toothpick before she send me straight to bed.
—Is big man you playing, eh, Jason?
Mohini of 1996. The year she write the CXC exams.
Mohini, Mohini, Mohini.
Even though she was my mother sister, she was only eight year older than me so I never had to call her Auntie, and she didn’t mind either. She could be strict when I was behaving like a no-good raggamuffin, but mostly she was lovely. She was nice. She was my best friend. She help me with my homework and cook my favourite food, and teach me how to tie my laces and how to tell time when I was small. We would stay awake late and she would talk about all the ancient myths—the goddess, Morning, that make the world when she marry she own father, Sky; Rama, who cross the sea to find he wife who get thief away by a demon with ten head; the five Pandava brothers who all marry to the same woman, and all the rest of them—devas and asuras, and the common man who live in they hand.
Mohini and me, we was tight like orchid and mango tree. We used to do everything together, and she take care of me, from the moment I born—bare and bawling and bratty—because, well, because Mother couldn’t do anything. The drinking had already become a problem long before I come into this world.
I guess some people curse does be chasing them even between one life and the next, not so?
Anyway, that summer, when one screwface boy, Bully, and he crew, did want me to bowl all the time and never let me bat, I went home and complain to Mohini. She face, normally open and welcoming, like the heart of a frangipani flower, crumple up and she eyes go wide with how angry she get. She walk me back to the ball-field, grab Bully by he ears and march he straight to he house where she proceed to call for he mother.
—Bully Mother, come out and talk to you son. What kinda training you giving this boy, eh? He don’t know nothing about fairness or what?
—Eh, eh, Jason, how things? Mohini, how the wait for the exam results going? Everybody saying you is the bright-girl who going to win the government scholarship. And is what this Bully do now? I going to brush he backside—
—He need lil training. Teach he some manners, and bout how to behave—
—I going to do just that, just that. Let me get me tamarind switch. Bring he here—
—And I don’t want to hear he bullying anybody else pickney round here—
—Yes, yes, I know—
—Because if I got to come and talk to you about he again—
—Oh, Lawd, girl, I ain’ say that I know? I know. I fucking know. I going to talk to he. What else you want from me?
—But, Bully Mother, look how you cussing me here today. If is cuss you want cuss, we can cuss because God give me a fucking mouth too—
—Well, why you don’t unhand me son, and take the mouth that God give you and go and tell you blasted sister to stop drinking that cheap brown rum, and knocking about from street corner to street corner like a common lowlife? Maybe then, you not going to be so stress bout everything and you going to relax lil bit and not be so blasted uptight all the goddamn time. How about that?
Then Bully Mother come down the stairs and drag she son, he ear shining lollipop-red, into the house, and slam the door behind she.
Mohini and me was quiet-quiet on the way home. Bully Mother had crossed a line, but she didn’t tell no lies.
Of course, people in the village did say all kind of thing to me and Mohini about Mother behaviour, but what we could do? I was a child, and Mohini was a little more than a child, one who had to go to school, mind the house, mind she alcoholic sister, and mind she nephew.
I did always want to say something to Mohini when she was like this, hurt, sullen, and close-up in she-self like the shame-bush that does curl up it leaves and hide away when anybody touch it, but I never knew what to say, so, that day, we just keep on walking toward home, wrap up tight-tight in silence.
The street was deserted by then and the golden day had turn to a iron-cool afternoon. The butterflies had disappear, and all the children had gone back to their homes where they would kiss they father on the cheek, when they, bearded and smelling of cigarette, come from work and sit in the hammock in the bottom-house to rest they weary legs. All the mother would be clapping hot roti with they bare hands, and the smell of a nice catfish curry or tilapia curry would be wafting around each home. The children would be settling in with their books, and resting in daydreams of witch and princess, evil-stepmother and hardworking stepdaughter, so quieting down, like lamps being turned down low, after a whole day of shouting and laughing and running and wilding outside.
Mohini and me walk past all these people and straight to we own little house at the end of the street, where there was no father in he hammock, no mother cooking curry, no quietude to rest in.
Instead, we had to deal with Mother.
When school was in season, Mother was drunk by the time the school-bell ring. The schoolchildren would fly around she as she stagger up and down the street, rum-bottle in hand, she curly black hair—the only thing she ever give to me—hanging around she face as if she was a churile. Sometimes, they would chant at she:
—Churile! Churile! Churile! Mad-lady, drunk-lady! Churile! Churile! Churile!
Mohini tell me to leave school a hour or so after the bell ring because by then the streets gon be clear and everybody gon be home.
In summer, Mother was drunk by the time the children get ready to start they ring-games late in the afternoon. She would strut past, garments falling off she bony frame as if she was a clothes-hanger, the stench of rum following she like sin. Sometimes the boys would whistle at her.
Mohini tell me to come home early those summer afternoons, before the ring-games start, else I would be out there when Mother was acting up and everybody would see me.
So I always walk home alone from school, long after all the other children done reach home, and I never did learn to play any ring-games.
Once we reach home that afternoon, we both know from the smell that erupt—that rank, stale-piss smell that cling to the skin with days of drinking—soon as we push the door open, that Mother was already inside. The smell lash we hard, and Mohini and me pinch we nose as we walk in, then go easy-easy around Mother, who huddle on the floor, small like a feral child, wild hair falling around she face, the buttons of she dress open and she breasts bare to the world so that I feel she shame resting heavy on me shoulder as she sit there and whimper, eyes close, calling to the past and to me father, God-rest-he-soul-and-keep-it-safe-from-she, while cradling a long glass rum-bottle with the dark liquid rolling around in it.
Mohini clasp she hands over me eyes and walk me to the bedroom door. I done already know the drill because we do this so much time before.
Looking back on it with clear eyes now, I think Mohini did just want to keep me safe. She didn’t want me to see Mother nakedness, or the hate that live in she eye, or the malice that upturn she mouth, or the rum-hunger inside she that swallow everything and hollow out the bones in she face. No, Mohini didn’t want me see any of that. She lead me, blind, to the bedroom, push me in, close the door pon me, and, click, lock me inside.
—Cover you ears, Jason. Go lie down.
But I didn’ listen to she. Instead I press me ear to the door and wait for it to start. You see, I did want to make sure she okay, just like she make sure I okay.
Mother voice, a rum-soak drawl, crawl thick and wet through the walls of we house.
—Where me son? Answer me, bitch. Where me son?
—L-let me talk to he, Mohini.
—When you sober up.
—You want to take me son from me—
—No. You not in the right condition—
—You want he for you-self—
—Maybe if you wasn’t drunk every day of he life, you could—
—You take he from me. Wh-why he don’t spend time with me? Why he don’t like me?
There was a loud bang.
—What the hell you think—
Then was the stinging sound of a slap.
Then was the sound of glass breaking.
Then was Mother howling, and Mohini hollering, and the tumbling of people-body on the floor, the scratching of nail on the wall, the searing strike of hand against skin, and then Mohini pull open the door and come sweeping in and press she back hard against it so Mother couldn’t follow.
Mohini was crying and watching me, nodding as if everything gon be all right, but I done know that nothing ain’ okay because tears leaking out she eyes nonstop and she hand bleeding, weeping red blood onto the floor from a long gash, and she holding the bad hand with she good hand, and she smiling at me, then she wiping the tears from she face so the blood swipe across one cheek, and she face is a flower with one petal red from the sun, and Mother keep banging against the door and Mohini whole body shaking, whether to keep it shut or because she frighten, I not sure anymore, and the blood keep dotting the floor and Mohini blue dress turning black from it, and Mother banging get louder and louder, fury itself, mad and intoxicated, trying to break into the room, but then suddenly, smaller and smaller, disappearing to nothing, quick as a lifetime, and, finally, Mohini drop to the floor, crouching and weary, clinging the bleeding hand to she chest, with the tears, the non-stop tears, shining silver-silver in the dying afternoon light so that it look like she face was make from a brittle glass that would break soon as I try and touch it.
She reach out for me and I go and I sit next to she and let she hold me close. I let she bloody hand rest on me shoulder and I put on a brave face to let she know is okay, that she can put she blood on me and I don’t mind, that she can rest she trembling hand on me shoulder, the hand that put clothes on me back and food in me mouth, and point out all the letter in me name, and touch me forehead for flu, and join with the other hand to fill me full with prayer, the hand that hold me own hand safe when we cross the road, that was a shield against Mother sharp fists, that turn purple, sometimes, the morning after a fight. I want to tell she all this, but I don’t know how to say the words. The words just lock up in me throat, maybe they was too big for me back then, so we just stay together on the floor and rest, till Mohini breathing come back to normal, till the blood harden into ruddy pain-flecks and the whole room steep in night and I fall asleep with she hand still resting on me.
The next morning I wake up to heavy quiet and Mohini was standing by the open window, she brow knit together as she pull small-small grain of glass from she hand, each one new-knife bright in the sunlight. Sometime she stop and watch out the window at the children playing, and then she turn and look at me hard, face determine, mouth set.
Me ain’ know if she did already find out she do well on she CXC exams, and she had win the scholarship to America, or if all that come later on, but I know, I know, was that same morning, with a cut on she hand and blood on she blue dress and the yellow sunlight flowing into that lil room, that she make up she mind to leave. Maybe she had enough of Mother, or enough of me, or maybe she just wanted a do-over. Either way, within a month, she was gone, like Princess Sita from the Ramayana, snatch away and vanish into the air, so all that was left was me and me alone.
I ain’ recall much bout Mohini leaving for America. Is like me mind don’t want to remember that time. When I try to think about it, me brain just go blank-blank, like a TV turned off. Suddenly empty, silent.
I do remember living alone with Mother all those years after.
How come, sometime, you does don’t forget the things you want to forget, eh?
Me and Mohini didn’t talk again for a long, long time after that summer. I realize that some pain, some grief, some yearning does be so strong that when you carry it in you heart, day after day after day, month after month after month, year after year after year, it become part of you soul, black and sticky, never letting go, the way rum does soak into the skin and never let go, sinking in deep and only coming out in you tears and sweat and spit. What I didn’ realize til was too late is that as I was carrying around all me bad feelings, sack-load and sack-load of it, I was letting it own me, so that I hang up the phone every time Mohini call, and I burn every letter she send me, and I let all of me misery eat me up from the inside out, day after day after day, month after month after month, year after year after year.
So much happen.
So much change.
One summer, bout the time I finish high school, I watch around the village and see that the children no longer come out and play— you know, like how they used to back in the day, all of them one time, like a set of bunduri crab happily scuttling out at low-tide. Some of them children had grow up, graduate, and gone to work, some had married off, some had dead, some get hook on drugs first and then dead, and some, like Bully, already had they own children to worry about, and them new children was a different breed than we, you sight? Them didn’t scamper through the street, them didn’t sing, or fight, or scream—them stay inside, and so the sound of cricket bat cracking into rubber ball wither from the village, the seesaw turn rotten with rust, the skipping rope was for gym only, and all the rude-boys, rude-boys with the sensi in they mouth, get pick up, one by one, over the years, by the police. I even stop seeing the orange-black butterflies.
I had change too. By then, I was eighteen and I did start working at the wharf, unloading the boats that pull in with everything from fish to machinery to cocaine. I grow me hair to me shoulder, so people would leave me alone. People is problems. Best to keep distant.
One-body I didn’ mind too much, though, was this girl, with real nice hands, who work at a office in one of the Ministry building. I would get away from Mother, and the girl would sneak me into she house when she parents was asleep. All the bannas at the wharf used to talk mong themselves and say she was a sweet-lil-thing, but I can’t really remember she face or anything bout she, besides the hands. Even then, when me and she was together in bed, she would disappear, and only she hands, slender and smooth, would be left. Them hands would tangle in me hair, trace across me face, and the fingers would be in me mouth, the fingernails sinking into me shoulder and raking across me chest, and them hands, them hands, would be all over, all over, all over.
For a lil while, this was enough to distract me. From Mother, from Mohini, from the world.
Thing change and thing fall away, till only silence left back.
Everything change and everything fall away, even Mother, monument of misery. She time come, eventually, the way time does come for all of we, chipping away, easy-easy, bit by bit, till we topple over and smash into the ground.
—Yes. Who is this?
—I got something to tell you.
—You finally called?
—After all these years, after all these years, after—
—Mother is dead.
—A cancer in her breast.
—I expected a hole in her stomach, or liver disease, or heart disease—
—I can’t believe—
—I’m burying her this Friday. Will you come?
—Are you sad?
—No. Are you?
—Will you visit me? Please say yes. Once it’s all over.
—It’s been ten years, and you were my whole world back then.
—Come to America. I’ll pay for it.
—I will think about it.
—I have a child now, a baby boy. He’d love to meet you. I tell him about you all the time even though he can’t walk or talk as yet. He reminds me of you, when you were a baby. Please say you’ll come. Please, bury her and be done with it and then please, please, come. We can start over. Properly. Without her this time. I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you so much. You have no idea. No idea.
In the end I couldn’t resist Mohini. She live in Iowa, of all the place in the world.
The house was nice, and comfortable enough, but more small than the one back home in Guyana. She did decorate for the Christmas season with Santa socks by the fireplace, holly pon the wall, tinsel dripping from the ceiling, and a Christmas tree loitering like a stranger in a corner.
The road outside was carpet with snow, and we, safe and warm inside, at the dinner table. Candle was set up, which make no sense to me because the lights did working normal-normal. Me and she across from each other while Christmas tunes warble out, low, from the radio. Mohini look beautiful as ever. She barely seem older than when she left. Same black hair pull into a long, tight ponytail at the top of she head, same small nose and full lip, same wide eyes that reflect all the light in the room so they look as if they holding the starry Guyana sky in them.
She clearing away the plates when she stop and look at me, smiling and opening she eyes big-big, and shaking she head as if she seeing one of them Christmas spirit sitting down at she dinner table instead of me.
—I can’t believe you’re here.
—You’re so big now. You were little when I left. You liked the Power Rangers and going to the seawall and playing cricket.
—People grow up. Things change.
—Ten years is a long time.
—Yeah, but I’m here now.
Then Mohini stop talk and she smile at me again and reach across the table and cup me face in she hand. I hold on to the touch of she skin against me own. I drink up the moment, take it all inside me, savouring it the way a dying man savour water, clinging to every second, every heartbeat that pass, and each one is a blink in time, and each one is a year in time, and I feel like if I drop down dead in that moment, she hand could be me tombstone and I would be more than happy with that, and I press me face deeper into she palm because I feel like I want them to have to cut me away from it, and I feel like if she take she hand away the world might end, and I feel like turning me head ever so slightly to kiss she hand, but I resist, I tell me-self, no, no, no. I let out a big breath and blow away the weight of the past ten year, ten whole year without she by me side, and I just let me head rest against she hand. Let it rest there.
Then crying start up from the other end of the table and Mohini pull away she hand from me face and hurry to the high chair, where the baby, winking slowly through tears and looking like a fat white crapaud, was wriggling in he seat, carrying on with one big bawling. Mohini pick he up quick-quick, and pull down she top and put a breast in he hungry mouth. I look away.
—I don’t know what’s going on with him today. He’s been in such a fidgety mood.
—Do you tell him stories?
—Yes, of course, when I get time.
—The ones about the gods and the demons?
—The ones you used to tell me.
—Oh. I really don’t remember any of those. I do the popular ones, like Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Br’er Rabbit. The classics.
She hold the baby closer to she heart and rock he gently, and I see that the scar on the back of she hand, that link she to me and Mother, had done fade away with the years.
When the baby settle down to sleep, me and Mohini stand up in the kitchen and watch each other, the smell of cinnamon and vanilla and breast-milk lingering, and Frank Sinatra and he melancholy voice sauntering through the radio and circling round we. Mohini hold she hand out, and I get a flash in me mind from that day, long ago, when that same hand was cut open and bleeding. But in that spotless kitchen she was smiling, and she hand ain’ had no blood on it, and we was in Iowa, not a foul-smelling room on the coast of South America, and the snow was falling, and you couldn’t feel the beat of the Caribbean heat, and Sinatra was on the radio, and there wasn’t no banging at the walls or crash of rum-bottle breaking, or any people screaming, and Mother was not there, thank God.
Mohini and I hold each other close, and we sway, slow-slow, into the night.
—Everything is better now.
—Yes. Yes, everything is.
—Do you have a girlfriend back home?
—Why are you laughing? You’re an adult now.
—Yeah, it’s just kinda weird—
—Well, you are my aunt—
—Not sure I really want to talk about my relationships with my aunt.
—What? Why not? Just tell me. Is there someone?
—Well, there is this girl in Guyana.
—But? But what? Is it not working out?
—I think I only like her for one thing.
—Oh, God. Well. Well, that’s not good.
—We might break up soon.
—Do you want a drink? For a broken heart to come?
—I’ve got tequila, beer, wine. Or eggnog and we can put a splash of rum in it.
—I don’t drink.
—Never. Do you?
—Sometimes. Not like . . . not like her, though. Not so much. Not so much.
—Do you . . . ever . . . think maybe we didn’t do enough for her?
—No, because there was nothing we could do.
—They can’t help it, you know. All that hunger, all that thirst, or whatever’s going on inside them, they can’t turn it on or off just like that. They can’t resist or control—
—Everybody’s got control. It’s all about willpower—
—She didn’t care. She was awful, and horrible to both of us—
—Looking back on it now, though, I wonder if maybe she didn’t want to—
—She could have stopped it if she wanted to. I’m not like that and you’re not like that because we choose not to be.
—Jason. Everybody is addicted to something.
—Not me. Not you.
—I’m sorry for leaving—
—No, I really need to—
—You don’t need to do anything. You made the right choice, and I don’t blame you. You’re here now.
Then she was quiet, and I pull she even closer so we body was one, and I let the music flow through we as we spiral together in the small space of the kitchen.
Was well past midnight when I wake up on the couch. Noise—things falling, things bumping—was coming from the next floor of the house. I sit up and wait lil bit to see if is Mohini, and if the knocking-around going to end. Maybe she was packing up? But then I say to me-self, packing up at two in the morning? Not a chance, man.
When the noise continue, a constant cracking over me head, I start walk up the stairs to where the bedroom was. The noise get louder and louder, and I realize it was coming from a bathroom, where the light was on inside. I stand in the dark hall and watch the closed door. I press me face to it, so I could hear better what was going on. Mohini was behind that. Me heart start to beat fast because I know something ain’ right. I hear Mohini voice, whispering and groaning loud-loud. At that, I couldn’ move, not a inch. I was scared bad. Is like me foot was root to the spot. I hear Mohini voice again, murmuring-murmuring, then a scratching, and a clatter of things falling. Me face was press so hard against the wood me ear was hurting. Me body wouldn’ let me do anything else. Even when I start think I need to break the door and pull she out from whatever it was holding she in there, I couldn’ move. She voice get louder, sadder, and that is what give me movement again, she voice in a pain that make all the hair stand up on me skin. I grab on the knob and turn and fling that door open.
Mohini was the only body in that bathroom, huddle on the floor. She didn’ even see me at first. She was talking to she-self, babbling low, as if she was some madwoman, so I couldn’t hear what she was saying. She eyes was red. She black hair was a curtain that hide all but a sliver of she pale-pale face. She lips was dry, and all around she, things was upturn. Cupboard door open, vase break up and on the floor, towels pull down, drawers pull out, bottles all over, liquid spilling from containers, scuff marks on the wall. Was like somebody fighting for they life, but was nobody else in that place but she alone.
She watch up at me and smile, even though she lips tremble and she eyes full of water, she face working hard to hide something, something bad, from me.
—I all right.
—You don’t look all right.
—No, no. I jus looking for me medicine. Me medicine. I forget where I put it—
—Just, you know, you know, to help me sleep. It been hard, real hard, all these years. You don’t understand. But I good, I good. Go to sleep, I gon see you in the morning.
Then she wave me way and start picking up the bottle from the floor, one at a time, reading the labels and throwing them off to the side. She pass over Tylenol and Advil and small bottle of lotion and shampoo, and she looking, looking, pushing the discards aside, a shaking taking over she whole body, tears splatting against the linoleum, she hands like two spiders prowling the floor, searching, searching, till, eventually, she find it, what she been looking for, a small white bottle. She pop the lid off, desperate, and pour out the small, sickly-yellow pills in she palm and, quick-quick, she start to swallow them down one by one by one. She swallow fast, like a woman who ain’ eat in weeks, hand to mouth, hand to mouth, hand to mouth, nonstop, as if she was going to finish the whole bottle right there and then, hunch over in the bathroom.
—Enough. Give it to me now.
When I reach for the bottle, she rise up and snatch it away and keep pouring the pills into she hand. I grab again and hold on and try to pull it away, but she wouldn’t let go. She wrench she fingers under me own and try to loosen me grip from the bottle, but I know not to give up. She face harden, and she claw me hand, she fingernails scraping off skin and blood, and still I didn’t let go. She start to breathe heavy as we both hold on to the bottle, which shake like a rattle from the devil himself in we hand, and a low moaning sound come from she mouth, a ugly sound, like it come from a jumbie or a kanaima or a churile or something mo sinister. Then I could hear the baby start up too, crying down the hall in the nursery, the noise loud like cracking glass cutting deep into the night, but even that didn’t stop she, and even that didn’t stop me from trying to take the bottle away from she. I had to do it.
The crying from the child get louder and louder, and when Mohini finally loose me hand and step back, I think she give up, I think she going to she baby. But instead she arch she hand and bring it down in a tight, biting slap against me face.
I reel back and the bottle drop from me hand and the yellow pills stream out in a fan on the floor, and Mohini stoop down again and pick them up one by one as if they was little drops of gold. She hands was trembling when she lift them to she mouth, she eyes fix on them pills, she hands skittering across the tiles, searching for them, and clinging to each one tight till it was safe in she mouth.
I try to rub the pain from me face and left she there, stepping out the bathroom and walking down the hall to the nursery, where the baby was still bawling he life out. I enter the room and lock the door behind me, and I reach into the crib and pat the child, gently, gently. I wait until he fall asleep, then I settle at the small window in the room and try to see down into the street. I couldn’t see nothing but a barely-there snow drizzling from the sky, flake by flake, falling into the lifeless, open mouth of the dark below.
I get interrupt with a soft rapping on the nursery door, and I done know is she, full from the pills and heavy with regret, and I done know that I gon open that door for she. I just wouldn’t be able to resist.
Subraj Singh, a writer from Guyana, was a member of Clarion West’s class of 2022, a fellow at the Gabo Foundation, and a resident at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. He is studying fiction in the MFA program at the University of Maryland. (updated 10/2023)