Angela Dawkins watched the clothes on the line dance to the force of the tropical wind as it lifted them up and brought them back down. It was late afternoon and the feeling and smell in the air was of an imminent downpour. She could see the sky darkening in the distance and a lone hawk cruising near the clouds. “You wretch!” she thought. “You not getting near my chickens today!” She was sitting in a wicker-backed rocking chair on the verandah and knew she should get up and retrieve the two dresses, four shirts, two half slips, two blouses and one girl’s school uniform from the clothesline before the rain started but she was too comfortable to budge.
She kept looking to the road to see if her daughter, Jasmine, was on her way in from school and would retrieve the clothes from the line. Even though it was fifteen minutes past the time she should have been home, there was no sign of the girl.
Angela kissed her teeth. “That girl loves to skylark too much!”
At that moment she felt a hard kick in her belly.
“Ouch!” she cried, then laughed out loud. She rubbed her belly gently.
“But you see my dying trial!” she said in mock disbelief. “You angry that I’m criticizing your big sister and you not even born yet?”
She smiled as she wondered if the two of them would gang up on her as time went on.
Angela was alone except for the dog, Rex, who lay at her feet sleeping but would jump up every few minutes, look towards the road and lie back down. He knew it was time for Jasmine to be home and was as concerned as her mother. Jasmine was twelve years old and very popular in school and in the village. Lately she had begun to stay out later than she knew she should, playing in the schoolyard or stopping at Maas Arthur’s shop with her friend, Celia, to buy her favorite sweets, paradise plum and tamarind balls. Then taking the long way home so she and Celia could spend as much time together talking about God knows what girl children were always talking about. Each time Angela confronted Jasmine about this she promised she’d get home on time from then on. She’d live up to her promise for a few days then resort to the same behaviour soon after. Angela wanted to give the child some slack but couldn’t. She was afraid..
When Angela asked her husband, who was not Jasmine’s father, to talk to the girl, he scolded Angela for being overprotective, reminding her that except for a few thieves, the village was crime free. He told her that Jasmine was a good girl doing very well in school and should be given a little more freedom. Angela would look at him with annoyance and admiration. She was annoyed that he didn’t agree with her, but admired him for his loyalty and support of the girl who was not his blood.
Jasmine was fifteen months old when Angela moved into the village. She wasn’t there fully two months when she met Byron, the man who was to be her husband. She had rented a room in the house up the road from where he lived. The rest of the premises were already occupied by a middle-aged couple and their two grown sons. She felt like a fish out of water, not knowing anyone nor having any relatives nearby. The family who shared the house was friendly enough, except for the husband. He was too friendly, managing to touch Angela every time they passed each other in the yard or on the verandah. She soon learned to give him a wide berth. Whenever he was the only one home Angela would go to her room with Jasmine and lock her door. This was usually in the evenings when his wife went to prayer meeting which she seemed to do most days of the week. Their two sons were rarely home.
Angela, being new in the village, didn’t want to start any trouble so she tried to solve the problem by simply avoiding him at first. That did not help. In fact, he got bolder. Then one day she had a bright idea. She and the wife were on the verandah talking and the husband was giving Angela the eye while sitting there right next to his wife. Angela steered the conversation to the subject of obeah. The wife started going on about how she was a sanctified Christian and therefore didn’t believe in such wickedness. Angela let it be known that she didn’t believe in it either but something had happened a year or so before that made her wonder.
She told of how her cousin, Mavis, was being pursued and harassed by a married neighbor. When she couldn’t take it anymore she told her mother who took her to an obeahman. Shortly after the trip, Mavis took the white powder the obeahman gave her and sprinkled it over the neighbor’s side of the fence while chanting a special incantation. It was soon known all over the village that the neighbor’s privates had dried up and he was of no use in bed to his wife or his mistress. He sold off his goats, his cattle and most of his land trying to get well by paying off at least three obeahmen and one obeahwoman for a spell or a potion that would cure him, but nothing worked.
“Then one bright Sunday morning nine months later his wife found him hanging from a breadfruit tree behind their house!” Angela told the story while looking straight at the husband.
“Is true, Miss Angela?” the wife asked, in shock and dismay.
“Yes, ma’am! He was no use whatsoever in the bedroom.”
“You wouldn’t do something like that to a man would you, Miss Angela?”
“I wouldn’t want to, Miss Sarah. But I’d think about it if some man wouldn’t leave me alone, especially if he was married. All I’d do is go visit my auntie.”
The husband lit a cigarette and started puffing away. His wife gave him a dirty look and he got up and went to sit under the big guango tree in the front yard. From then on until she moved out he stayed clear of Angela, barely ever even looking her in the face when they passed each other in the yard or on the verandah.
Angela started going to church with Miss Sarah, but only on Sundays. It was while they were on their way to church one Sunday morning that she saw the tall, straight-backed, ebony man walking towards them. He tipped his hat and smiled exposing a sizable gap between his two front teeth. She couldn’t wait till he was out of earshot to ask Miss Sarah who he was.
“He’s Sister Iris oldest son who went to America but didn’t like it an’ come back home to do farming.”
“Not anymore. American wife divorce him a couple years ago.”
“Seems like he never took to life in America and she never want to live in some foreign country away from her family, so they break up.”
“But wait!” Miss Sarah said, stopping in her tracks, and turning to face Angela, “Why you so interested in Byron?”
Angela was embarrassed and giggled like a schoolgirl at the question. Jasmine, who was holding tightly to her mother’s hand, as they walked along, began to whimper. Angela picked her up.
“He looks like a nice young man, that’s all.” Then she said, almost as an afterthought, “So that’s his name, Byron?”
Miss Sarah was silent after that as they finished the journey to church. Angela heard very little of the sermon. Her mind was on Byron. She wondered when she’d see him again, or if she could get Miss Sarah to introduce them. Then she upbraided herself for being so silly. If there was such a thing as love at first sight, this must be it, she thought. She had lost her virginity at fifteen to a boy she barely knew and certainly did not love. They were playing around one early morning by the riverbank where they both went to fetch water. He offered to show her what a real kiss was. She decided to be daring and agreed. Next thing she knew, he was on top of her. She didn’t trust males after that. She ended each brief relationship before it became physically intimate. Nothing had prepared her for the butterflies in her stomach or the desire she was feeling after seeing this man only once.
But surely Byron had a woman. How could he not? On the way home from church she came right out and asked the question.
“I guess Byron has a woman?” She said it in a whisper and so had to repeat the question twice.
“I don’t know!” Miss Sarah said, sounding almost unfriendly.
Angela knew that she must have known something. Everyone in these villages knew everything that was going on in the lives of their neighbors. That was why Angela ended up in Gravel Hill, having moved to three different villages since Jasmine’s birth.
One morning while Angela was sitting on the verandah with Jasmine asleep on her lap (Miss Sarah and her husband had gone to visit relatives in town), she saw Byron coming up the walk. She was surprised and excited but kept calm and waited for him to reach the steps of the verandah. He was wearing blue jeans and a neatly pressed shirt and what seemed like new sneakers. He had a look about him of someone who had traveled abroad, to America specifically.
He greeted her and she was surprised by the softness of his voice. He said he didn’t want to bother her but a couple of his goats had gotten out of their pen and he was looking for them. He waved his hand in the general direction of where he lived and described the goats. She hadn’t seen those particular goats that morning, but then again stray goats were always marching through the property eating everything in sight including laundry from the clothesline. While talking to her, Byron’s eyes were fixed on Jasmine. His admiring words for her daughter enlivened Angela. She invited him for breakfast. Over ackee and codfish and fried dumplings he told her about his marriage to a woman he did not really love, and of life in a place he could not belong. He missed his life in rural Jamaica, all of it. He who had been to Kingston only a few times and couldn’t stand the hustle and bustle of it, found himself in a foreign city of frenetic energy living his life at breakneck speed. After five years in New York he decided it was Jamaica or his sanity. His wife would not live in Jamaica with him. In the end she told him, “I know your heart is not with me.”
“Foreign ah nuh fi everybody,” he told Angela. “It surely wasn’t for me.”
She told him some things about her life: the untimely death of her parents, being raised by her grandmother. When he asked her about Jasmine’s father, she said he was not in her life.
“I have no earthly idea where he is,” she said.
After that morning they were together as often as was possible. When Angela took him to meet her grandmother, the old woman loved him instantly and was glad Angela found a good man, unlike the no good so and so who got her pregnant and took no responsibility.
“Now I can close my eyes in peace,” she told Angela when they were alone.
Within six months Angela and Byron were married. Over the years Angela teased Byron about his “missing goats.”
“Tell me the truth, Byron. You weren’t missing any goats, were you?”
“Yes, two of my goats went missing! But I’m glad still I did meet you.”
“Guh whey fran deh! Yuh a ole ginnal!” Angela would scold.
“And you glad of it, aren’t you?” Byron would tease.
This little verbal sparring would inevitably end in a hug or kiss or more. They were as happy as any couple could be. Except for two things. The almost ten years they had spent trying to have a child together unsuccessfully. And Angela’s worry that her secret fear about Jasmine would come out. Now that she was finally pregnant, there was only one thing left. Angela’s parents had been killed in a road accident on their way home from Kingston one rainy Sunday night. Angela was eight years old and remembers being jolted awake by the mournful wails of her grandmother when someone knocked on the front door and gave her the shocking news. Angela remembers the fear that gripped her when she understood she would never see her mother and father again as she watched their coffins being lowered into the ground as they were buried side by side in the churchyard. This left a big hole in Angela’s being. Nothing her grandmother and other relatives and friends said or did could make it go away. She spent most of her young life feeling lonely and depressed inside. But she put on a good face because she didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all her grandmother had done for her. In fact, she cut her formal education short to apprentice as a dressmaker and embroiderer like her grandmother.
Every Friday morning they’d catch the early bus to Kingston where they’d sell their embroidered doilies, tablecloths, bedspreads and pillow cases and return home on Saturday evenings. Then one Friday Angela wasn’t feeling well and persuaded her grandmother to go it alone. This was not the first time this had happened where she felt she could not go on one more day and feigned physical illness to camouflage her emotional distress. She was eighteen years old and could not bring herself to tell even her best friend what she was going through. So she promised her grandmother she’d rest and take some homemade remedy to ease what was ailing her. Shortly after her grandmother left, a young woman Angela had never seen before knocked on the door and asked if she could use the toilet. Angela pointed her to the little structure out back. It was not unusual that travelers would ask to use the facilities once in a while since the house was close to the main road. Usually a car would stop and someone would alight and make the request. Sometimes even big country buses stopped so a passenger or two could seek relief. Angela did not hear a vehicle stop just before the young woman appeared but thought nothing of it. Falling back to sleep, she did not hear the young woman leave. She was half awake when she heard a faint cry like that of a baby goat. But there was something different about it. She got up to look in the direction from which the sound was coming. Seeing nothing, she stepped outside and followed the faint but plaintive wails. She slowly opened the door of the latrine. There on the floor lying on some old newspapers was a newborn baby girl.
The cord had already been cut and she had been cleaned of the accompaniments of birth.
“You precious little thing,” Angela whispered, as she cradled the baby in her arms. It took her no time to make the decision: “You’re mine. My Jasmine.
She had always loved that name and imagined someday giving it to her first daughter. Angela’s grandmother was distraught when she came home and found Angela had given birth. But how? She never looked pregnant. She may have gained a few pounds over the last couple of years, but nothing drastic. She wondered why Angela would go through such an ordeal alone without calling out to one of her neighbors for help.
“So that’s why you been sickly?” she asked with tears in her eyes. Angela couldn’t believe she had pulled it off. Her grandmother’s disappointment, especially when Angela refused to name the baby’s father, soon gave way to love for her great grandchild.
“What a nice little baby,” was the admiring cry of the older relatives and neighbours who saw Jasmine. Except one. A neighbor, Miss Mattie, who was around ninety years old and knew everybody’s business. She looked at the baby and then into Angela’s eyes giving her a knowing stare.
“But she no fayva you at all.” she declared. “Most girl baby always have something fi dem madda. She must look like her fada. What him name again?”
Angela was sure Miss Mattie knew the truth. She may have seen the baby’s mother or she may have been peeping out her window and had seen Angela take the baby up to the house. The fear of Miss Mattie and the possibility of Jasmine’s biological mother coming back to claim her, caused Angela to leave the village and her grandmother’s house before Jasmine was six months old. She moved a couple more times ending up at Gravel Hill, and Byron.
Not giving birth to Jasmine was a secret she planned to take to her grave. The way she saw it, Jasmine was a gift from God to make up for taking her parents from her before their time. Jasmine filled the big gaping hole in her being that their dying had left. As much as she loved him, she couldn’t tell Byron that the baby they were finally expecting was the first child she ever carried in her womb. The fear was always there, however, that someday she might be found out. She worried about that each time Jasmine was late coming home from school or took too long coming back from the grocery shop. The clouds were getting darker and the clothes were flapping hard on the line.
Angela looked to the road one more time for Jasmine. There was no sign of the girl. She decided to get the clothes herself. As she stepped off the verandah, she heard Jasmine’s excited voice.
“Mommy, Mommy! Sorry, I’m late.”
She was running up the walk and breathing hard. Rex ran to her wagging his tail and jumping around. Angela gestured to Jasmine to calm down. Jasmine put her right hand on her chest and took a deep breath.
“I met a lady at the shop. She was just passing through and stopped for a cold drink. When she saw me, she looked frightened and walked over and touched my face. Then she started crying. I was scared, Mommy. She said I look exactly like her daughter who died last year in England. She was a doctor and developed some kind of sickness that had no cure. When I told her my name was Jasmine she almost fainted. I had to help hold her to stop her from falling over and Maas Arthur let her sit down on his stool. After she gathered herself, she opened her wallet and showed me a picture. And Mommy, you should see the picture! I favour her daughter more than I favour you!”
“How many times have I told you not to talk to strangers, Jasmine?” Angela asked, almost shouting. “How many times?”
Just then the rain began to pour and Jasmine ran to get the clothes from the line.
As Angela stepped back onto the verandah, she felt a sharp pain that caused her to almost double over. “Don’t come so soon, baby. It’s not your time yet,” she whispered. “Don’t come so soon.”