Ghosts, Guinness, and God

As a child growing up in Jamaica, I was frightened by the graves in my front yard. Although the graves were my daylight playground, at night the ghosts of Aunt Hortense’s relatives returned to reclaim their territory. Aunt Hortense tried to relieve my fears by explaining that the ghosts were friendly, more interested in tasting a sip of Guinness than scaring little girls. This was of little comfort to me however for I wondered what they would do if they did not get the Guinness. Would they acquire a taste for little girls? Fortunately, I never had to find out since our cupboard was always stocked with ale.

As a Jehovah’s Witness, Aunt Hortense considered it a sin to drink alcohol so she never drank the ale straight. Instead, she combined it with sweetened condensed milk and only drank this mixture to relieve her upset stomach. I loved watching her create this concoction, which I was forbidden to taste. One night, however, her hands aching with arthritis pain, Aunt Hortense asked me to help her mix the drink. I slowly poured the sweetened milk into a cup of ale and stirred until the mixture looked like a creamy Ovaltine shake. When Aunt Hortense was not looking, I took a sip. However, the taste of Aunt Hortense’s concoction disappointed me; it did not fulfill its promise of sweetness. Seeing my face twisted in a frown, Aunt Hortense quickly realized what I had done. “Go spit it outside so Granny Gertie can have a little taste,” she said. Aunt Hortense delivered these instructions so nonchalantly that Granny Gertie was suddenly transformed from a horrid ghost in to a doting grandmother. Once outside and away from Aunt Hortense’s comforting voice, however, I could not sustain the pleasant images of Granny Gertie and the others. Frightened, I swallowed the ale and instinctively ran back inside the house, slamming the door shut behind me.

Later that night, I was awakened by a noise coming from the front door. Trembling with fright, I placed my head under the sheets and slid closer to Aunt Hortense. ” It’s the neighbor’s dog,” I said, more a wish than a belief. Aunt Hortense gently rubbed my back. “It’s just Gertie. I don’t know what she want with us now.” But I knew exactly what Granny Gertie wanted. She was angry at me for drinking the Guinness and she came to take me back to the grave. Suddenly, I realized there was only one thing I could do to escape the clutches of Granny Gertie.

I slowly climbed out of bed, careful not to wake up Aunt Hortense. Although the cupboard was just a few feet away in the next room, it seemed to take hours to reach it. Two glasses of Guinness were on the bottom shelf. I grabbed them and the bottle opener and slowly made my way outside. This time, however, I felt no sense of dread. In fact, the closer I got to the graveyard, the calmer I became. And by the time I opened the bottles and poured their contents over the graves, I was smiling, pleased by my own ingenuity. I went back inside and slept soundly.

The following morning Aunt Hortense and I were having our tea when we saw Mrs. Gordon and Miss James walking towards the house. The women were sisters and devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. ” Good morning Sister Pottinger. Good morning Dahlia,” Mrs. Gordon said as she surveyed the kitchen. Miss James remained silent, her head bowed and her hands behind her back. ” Good morning Sisters,” said Aunt Hortense. “I thank Jehovah for allowing us to see another day. Forgive me for not having the station ready this morning sister, but I was not expecting you today.” Mrs. Gordon usually visits every Wednesday morning. Aunt Hortense and I woke up at dawn to prepare for the visit. We swept the leaves from under the almond tree, the “station” where Mrs. Gordon delivered the sermon. The two good chairs with the red velvet seats were placed under the tree facing each other. One chair was for Mrs. Gordon, the other for Aunt Hortense. Miss James stood behind her sister. I sat on th e ground next to Aunt Hortense. ” Sister, everyday you must be prepared to meet God.” Mrs. Gordon handed me a copy of The Watchtower. On the front cover, children and lions were playing side by side in a lush green meadow.

Since Aunt Hortense could not read, I was supposed to read the articles to her. But Aunt Hortense and I were more interested in the pictures, which told us all we needed to know. ” I did not plan to come here this morning. I was on my way to visit Sister Jenkins. But as I was walking by I saw something in your yard that I could not ignore. I’m sure Sister Jenkins will forgive me for being late once she knows the reason.” Aunt Hortense and I simultaneously turned our heads toward the front yard, but saw nothing unusual. Mrs. Gordon continued. “I would like to call your attention to the article on page twenty-four. It is entitled, “Will God Overlook Our Weaknesses?” I was busy turning the pages trying to find the pictures that would shed some meaning on Mrs. Gordon’s words when she heard the sounds of glass bottles brushing against each other. The sounds were coming from behind Miss James. “Show Sister Hortense what we found on the sacred grounds of her dearly departed loved ones.” As if on cue, Miss James suddenly became animated. She brought her hands from behind her, revealing two empty Guinness bottles, one in each hand. ” Now Sister Gordon, you know I cannot prevent people from throwing garbage in my yard.” Aunt Hortense took the bottles from Miss James and threw them in the corner of the kitchen. ” So you are saying that these bottles do not belong to you Sister. Can you tell me that these bottles did not pass your lips?” I could see that Aunt Hortense was thinking about how to answer the question without lying. Aunt Hortense prided herself on the fact that she never told a lie her entire life. ” Those bottles never passed these lips,” she told Mrs. Gordon. ” But they are yours. They were in your house, under your roof.” Mrs. Gordon spoke of the bottles as if they were juvenile delinquents. “And if you did not drink them, then who did?” Aunt Hortense was again trying to figure out how to avoid telling the truth without lying . But this time, I spoke up. “Aunt Hortense did not drink them,” I said. “I poured them on the grave. I’m the one who put them there.” Aunt Hortense looked at me, the _expression on her face slowly changed from surprise to amused understanding.

Mrs. Gordon’s face was harder to read, but her words and actions were clear. She placed her hand on my shoulders, knelt down so that we were eye-to-eye, and said, “Bless the wisdom of the child.” I hoped she would direct me to a picture in The Watchtower so I could understand what she meant, but instead Mrs. Gordon embraced me and motioned for her sister to do the same. Sandwiched between the two women, I could see Aunt Hortense from the corner of my eyes. She walked over and pat me on the head. Suddenly, tears came to my eyes. ” I’m sorry Aunt Hortense. I just woke up in the middle of the night and…” ” There’s no need to explain my child,” said Mrs. Gordon. “God spoke to you and you listened. The young do have a thing or two to teach the old.”

From that day, Mrs. Gordon took a liking to me. On her subsequent Wednesday visits, she would let me sit in her lap as she delivered the sermon. Mrs. Gordon tried to introduce me to a world that was very different from the one she had shared with Aunt Hortense. But Mrs. Gordon’s world was like the idyllic pictures featured in the pages of The Watchtower, a world that was pleasant to look at but not to live in. In Mrs. Gordon’s world, there were no ghosts and no Guinness. Aunt Hortense’s mutterings to Granny Gertie and the others were the ramblings of a silly old woman. The strange sounds in the night were no longer strange.

When Mrs. Gordon realized that I was not looking for a savior, she moved on. Aunt Hortense continued making her concoction, but she used more milk and less ale. And when Granny Gertie and the others make their nightly visit, I snuggle close to Aunt Hortense, tell them to get the Guinness themselves, and go back to sleep.

About the author

Dahlia Smith