Many Rivers To Cross

The fountain is clearest at its source -Proverbs Time? It belongs to God, and I have no control over it. No human being does. Time does not even belong to itself, really. That is why whenever I tried to manipulate it, I ended up with the short end of the stick and a fog of perplexity would come over me. It masquerade in front of my face in a carnival costume solicitously, and then disappears just like that, without a trace. Whenever it happens, it made me feel like the world was on my shoulders and being skinny and not yet strong, my knees buckled under the weight. In this quandary my head would explode with a wicked migraine followed by a constant ringing in my ears— someone calling my name, bad news. Mostly, it came when I sensed I was in trouble like disobeying Father’s warning not to go fishing or swimming down the river by my lonesome. Or when I disobeyed Mother’s fussing about raiding Mr. Chesterfield’s mango trees by climbing his tall concrete fence, which was lined on top with dreaded razor-shaped broken bottles to discouraged little buggers like me and my friends. Stealing (I really didn’t consider it stealing. In my mind it was an act of mercy because it was wickedness on the part of Mr. Chesterfield for wasting God’s creation, by allowing the mangoes to rot on the ground just because he does not eat them. I felt it was up to me to do the right thing by eating the mangoes as was intended by Him in the first place) from Mr. Chesterfield’s mango orchard was an adventure. It had a dangerous feeling; you felt like a hunter in the jungle of Africa poised and ready to kill a lion or be killed. Mr. Chesterfield had a reputation. He wasn’t crazy, but he had loved to fire gun shots up in the air in the nights, and I felt there might come a time when he would mistakenly shoot me. I believed he fired shots just to scare us boys in the village from coming over his yard. He was a tall, skinny looking Englishman, who had come to Jamaica as a teacher and decided he loved the place enough to stay. He had a wife, a sickly looking woman who I considered a recluse, and so she was insignificant—a shadow. It was like she never existed. We nicknamed him “The Shadow Shooter.” That is, he shoots at imaginary intruders, for we knew what time he was going to go through his shooting ritual, and so we made sure we weren’t around. Over the years as time went by, he slowly withered away and eventually disappeared and abandoned his home, leaving it to nature’s weeds, bushes, us, and the worries of mothers and fathers. Mother and Father were like two different peas in the same pod. Mother was over-protective especially when it came to me going down to the river by my lonesome and swimming for hours. She would walk the long distance and stand on the bank just to make sure I was safe. Over time, I could see why she did it. It was a mother’s fear. Where Mother would warn me to be careful or tells me of the danger in doing something, Father on the other hand would say, “Bwoy, just don’t drown you’ self.” Ironically, that would give me a sense of bravery. In his advice, I found confidence. That is, I was less concerned about been really careful and became more daring. Mother made me feel unsure, nervous and hesitant in attempting something new. With Father, I felt positive and acted like a man. “Bwoy,” he would say, “don’t come in this house with any crocodile tears, if you bus’ you head.” His voice was seriously encouraging. It was a voice that echoed throughout the house. It dominated every other sound around. He would come home from work and ask me how many fights I had in school today. “Listen,” he would say, “I don’t want any grass around me. All I want in my den is lions.” Grass, on my island, meant a “sissy.” Trouble? It was incidental. I usually found myself entangled in situations like a honeybee caught in a spider’s web—destiny! Trouble followed me around like a homeless dog abandoned in torrential rain, cold and hungry. On some occasions I’d be in the schoolyard romping around with a soccer ball, and a fight would start. I’d try to break it up, make peace and end up in the principal’s office facing a death penalty. It invaded my benevolent nature. Sometimes I’d help my friends from getting their backs blooded from the sharp edges of leather straps, soaked overnight in rock salt, administered by indoctrinated teachers, whose sole purpose in life was to carry through the colonial master’s legacy of protocol and control. I’d do this by taking the blame. I’d take the punishment of a friend in school just because I felt sorry for him or her. Usually, it was someone I considered unable to do the lessons assigned. I told Mother, time and time again, that she shouldn’t bother to waste Father’s money buying me books. Most of my classmates who had books were unable to read them. As a result, I would be the first to stand in line when we were called upon to stand and read. I’d dominate their voices with mine, so the teacher would think the entire class was reading well and in unison. I loved reading, especially the plays of Shakespeare and the American playwright, Eugene O’Neal. My favorites were Othello and The Glass Menagerie. I was often the first one in class to volunteer when reading time came around. If it were a book or a play, I would choose the longest passage. Sometimes, I would be the only one left reading, because all the other passages had ended and no one else had anything to do but listen to me. My teachers all thought I would be an actor. I chose to tell stories instead. Whopping? This was my youthful nightmare. What I usually did when I knew I was about to get a good whopping from Father was to pick a leaf from a tree. I’d spit on it and then throw it up into the air. If the leaf fell on the side where I had spit, it meant I was about to get the worse whopping in my life. Most of the times, it fell on the spit side. I usually preferred getting whop from Father than from Mother. Father had a method when it came to whopping. He was more precise in his way of administering corporal punishment. He would call me by my full name in his thunderous and commanding voice. He would stand at the front door with a resolute look on his face. In his left hand, he would hold a thick leather belt, and like counting by the seconds, slapped it against his thigh. His eyes would focus on me threateningly. When I approached him, deliberately slow, he would ask me if I knew what I did wrong. I’d say yes, Sir. “Then you know what come next?” “Yes, Sir,” I’d say with tears running down my jaws. He would give me two or three hard lashes with the belt and that would be it. It was quick and efficient. However, Mother never used a belt. She would grab anything she could reach and whop me good. It mattered not if it were a pot, a broomstick, a book, a hair bush or a long wooden spoon. Over the years, as I grew older I came to realize her fear. I recall after whopping me, she would hold her belly as if she was giving birth all over again. She would then find a bench and sit down and pat her chest while breathing hard. She would say to me after calming down, “One of these days, you going to kill me, bwoy.” This would make me feel so condemned, I’d try to please her for the rest of the day by cleaning up the yard or just sitting and reading my books just not to disturb or upset her. The worst whopping came from Mother on a day when the sky was so dark I thought it was an eclipse of the sun. Mother always warned me not to climb tall coconut trees. On this day, I wanted to make some pocket change. I thought to myself, if I could get about a dozen coconuts, I could walk around the village and sell them. In this way, I wouldn’t need to ask Mother or Father for pocket change. What made it more urgent for me to get some pocket change was that it was Friday and usually, on Fridays, the movie house that was on Hope Street near the Coronation Market close to the Chinaman store where you could get those big, sweet American apples, had what we called “triple bill.” Now, to us kids, to have three movies showing on the same night was like going to the fairground during festival time with more than enough money in your pocket to afford all the rides. And to be able to sit in the movie house (with your pocket filled with change) and enjoy a delicious American apple, bags and bags of roasted peanuts, mint chewing gum, a bottle of ice-cold coke or, my favorite, fried crayfish with hot pepper—was heaven on earth. Now, the coconut tree that I had climbed that day was the tallest in the back of our yard. It went up about twenty feet, then bent for another five feet and then straightened up for some three feet more. Climbing was easy for me. I was a monkey. The only danger I anticipated was the height and the combination of the wind. However, on this day the trees around were still, and the clouds were deadly dark. My experience taught me that this was a situation for lightening. Mother was always warning me to be careful when walking under or near green trees. She said green trees attract lightening. I will never forget one Sunday afternoon during a violent thunderstorm when lightening struck and killed, my schoolmate’s father, as he was docking his fiberglass boat. Mother said I was lucky that I had changed my mind about going with my friend, Malone and the rest of his family to the beach picnic to celebrate his father’s birthday. Later in the evening when I saw Malone and his mother at their house, I asked him what had happened. He said there was a sudden change in the weather when they were out at sea. His father decided to turn back to shore. When they came to shore, his father and a friend began loading the boat onto a trailer when suddenly there was a bright flash of light. Malone said his father went down on the ground, and that was when he realized his father was struck by lightning. Malone said his father suffered severe burns to the right of his face and his back. He died on his way to the hospital. I learned to climb coconut trees easily when one day while coming home from school, I saw our neighborhood vagabond, Selman, on the corner street. He was climbing one on the roadside with a piece of rope crisscrossed on his two feet. He climbed with such ease, he looked like a monkey. I was impressed. When he descended from the tree after picking almost all the coconuts from it, I asked him to show me how he did it. He did, and after practicing, I became a monkey myself. When I reached the top of the coconut tree, I carefully sat in the middle, securing myself by hooking my feet between to parallel boughs. I then reached over my head and began twisting a coconut. Now, it took time to twist one jelly coconut from its stem. You had to twist and twist and twist until finally the coconut dropped. I had twisted off six coconuts. I was on my seventh, when suddenly the muscle under my right arm down to my fingers contracted. My right hand hooked and froze in midair. I couldn’t move it. Every time I tried, it caused the most excruciating pain to register in my head. When I tried to bring down my hand, the pain traveled through my hand then lodged itself at my spine. It was very painful; I felt frightened. Now, the last thing anyone wanted to do was to panic. Because climbing any tree, required confidence—bravery. While I was in this crisis, I heard Mother calling me…. Memories? Mother kept the memory of Father somewhere in the corner of her mind. It’s a place where she buried him with love. I recalled the day he died. It was in the month of October, the ending of the hurricane season. She was livid and begged Father not to go to work that morning. She didn’t trust the rain, she told him. It was usually around this time the river became a treacherous monster, using the rain as its ally. The heavy rain would create mudslides, which would then drain into the river, turning the water into something like thick cornmeal porridge. The river would become wide as the sea, and houses, animals, and other personal items could be seen in the middle of the rapids washing down to the mouth of the eager sea. Father was a plumber. He had worked for the government in the Public Works Department before they transferred him to the German Electrical Company as a maintenance pipe cleaner. It paid more and was considered a status job in the eyes of some of the villagers. Mother was the only one who did not like Father’s new job. She said his job was a dangerous one. I recalled the first time she said that to me. I asked her what she meant by dangerous. She told me it was too horrible for her to tell. She said every time she thought about it, her stomach felt like it would drop to the ground. I found out the nature of Father’s job through various conversations he would have whenever his friends were around drinking and playing checkers. “Man, I am scared sometimes of that long rusty-looking pipe,” Father said one day while playing checkers in our backyard and drinking Red Stripe beer. “I don’t know,” said Bolo, our cousin who often visited Father whenever he came to our village to sell his tailor-made pants. “From what I hear,” he said, “you guys crawl into that long pipe like rats to clean it. Me, I could never work that kind of a job for nobody.” “It’s one long pipe for sure,” said Father as he made a move on the checker board that seemed to put Bolo in a quandary. Bolo studied the board for a while; at the same time he scratched his head. He made a rush move and looked at Father as if he was saying, “Take that!” Father smiled and slowly lifted his black disk, took three of Bolo’s red disks and said,” Crown me, King!” After putting another disk on top of Father’s, Bolo said, “Tell me something, Lynton, how long is the pipe?” My father eased himself up from the small bench he was sitting on. He had loved to describe the distance of the pipe to almost anyone who asked. I think he had liked to see the expression on their faces when he explained. He would describe the length of pipe in a brazen kind of way. I figured it was his pride. Whenever he told his story of the pipe, most who were present kept silent. The story was that some Germans came to the island and built the pipe because the government wanted a massive electrical power system. Most of the island lacked electricity, particularly for those who had lived in the rural areas. Father said the Germans were famous for using fresh water for electrical power. He said the pipe was the longest pipe in the world. “How long?” asked Bolo, impatiently. “About twenty thousand feet,” said Father with a broad smile. You could see his even white teeth. “Stop you nonsense!” shouted Bolo; “that’s impossible.” Father kept moving his head up and down. This time, a mischievous smile washed his face while his head kept moving up and down. He was amused at how astonished Bolo had become. For him, it was the typical reaction like that of others who had heard the story of the long pipe. It was one of those occasions when he felt proud of his job. “You mean to tell me,” said Bolo, getting up from his seat, “that you all crawl into that dungeon pipe to clean it?” “Yes,” said Father, “every hurricane season.” “Man, you all a bunch of lunatics,” said Bolo, sat back down and resumed his study of the checker board. Restitution? It was early one Monday morning, the day Father lost his life. The rain was pounding rooftops. Mother was escorting me to school as usual. Men, women and other school children were lined up waiting to catch the early morning tramcar. Mother, for some reason, was feeling irritable. I think she felt that way because Father ignored her warning that the day was a bad one to work in the pipeline. He had told her that he had to because if any hurricane should come, the pipe, not properly cleaned, could cause severe flooding from the dam. We were waiting a long time. This was unusual. The tramcar was never late. Some of the people were getting upset; some were catching rides any which way they could. Some caught rides in wagons, buggies, and those who couldn’t catch a ride, like Mother and me, set out on foot. None knew why the tramcar hadn’t shown up. While we were walking, conversations were focused on the rain and what it could do to the island if it didn’t stop soon. People spoke in fear. Some began telling stories of tragedies like the near drowning of Viola when she tried to recover the contents of her household as they washed down the river. It was Father who had rescued her by pulling her out of the rapid muddied water with a long piece of bamboo almost to the detriment of his own life. An old man riding a donkey, known to us as Joshua, stopped and told Mother a story as to why the tramcar didn’t come. He said about four miles down the road, police had blocked off a portion from all traffic coming and going. Mother asked why. He said because of a terrible accident at the German Electrical Company.” I looked at Mother when the old man said “German Electrical Company.’ Her face transformed into one without blood. The color was dead yellow. She immediately put her two hands to her mouth and said, “I know it.” “What’s the matter, ma’am?” asked old man Joshua as he came off the donkey and then moved to stand in front of Mother and me. “My husband works at the company,” she said, removing her hands form her mouth. “Oh God, ma’am,” said old man Joshua, “me sorry to hear that. Look lady, you and the little boy move out the rain. Come stand under this tree over here.” Mother took my left hand, and we went under a mango tree. The rain was not so heavy. It was steadily falling but fading. “You sure they say German?” said Mother. “Yes, ma’am, it’s the same place where the big long pipe is,” he said shaking his head, which was covered with a wide sombrero hat. Some of the other people, who were walking along with us, overheard what old man Joshua had said. They didn’t bother to ask any further question. They began running towards the power company. Mother said thanks to old man Joshua, grabbed me by the hand and began running too. “Dudley,” Mother said, “we mus’ run!” “Why?” “We got to see if you father is all right.” It was four miles to the German Electrical Power Company. The rain had eased up a little. A bit of sun was trying to push through the dark clouds. From a distance, you could see the colors of the rain as it fell from the sky through the rays of the sun. I could hear Mother’s feet slamming against the hard dirt road as she trotted through puddles of water. I was keeping pace with her as well as the others. It was a panicky time. People were talking loudly as they ran. Some were already crying, maybe for relatives who might have gotten hurt or might have been killed. As we kept up the pace, heading towards the power station. We kept hearing different versions of what might have happened. When Mother slowed down to take a rest, a woman, who was standing by the road near a tall coconut tree, fell down to the ground and began the most frightening wailing I have ever heard. Mother went over to her and tried to console her, but the woman wailed on and on. She kept on saying, “Everybody dead! Every single one dead!” “Everyone of them?” Mother asked bending closer to listen. “Every single one! Everybody dead!” repeated the woman. Mother stared at her as she slowly rose. She suddenly grabbed my hand and began running once more. When we reached the power station, crowds and crowds of people had already gathered at the fence. Mother let loose of my hand and ran up to a white man, who was wearing a yellow hard yellow hat. She grabbed him by his shirtsleeve; she asked him about Father. I stared at the white man as he shook his head in a disgusted way. He said he couldn’t tell her anything at the moment. I looked around and saw men, women, and children lying on the ground. They were rolling over, clutching handfuls of grass and red dirt. They were screaming. They were grieving for their loved ones, who seemed lost to them forever. I ran up to Mother and pointed to a man who stood by a royal palm tree vomiting. He looked absolutely frightened. His face was pale like the inside of a young pumpkin. Mother and I walked over to him and questioned him. He looked at Mother with eyes red like the color of the clouds when the sun was going down. The man shook his head without saying anything. The wailing and screaming, which penetrated the surroundings, were agonizing. Some of the women, who knew of family members that worked inside the pipe, walked around the power station holding their heads and bellies shouting names and begging God for mercy. I stood beside Mother who had walked away from the frightened man, and tears began pouring from my eyes. A black man, who was wearing a white hard hat, told Mother that about thirty-three men were trapped inside the pipe. The frightened man we saw was one of the men who had survived. They had managed to escape through a manhole at the far end of the pipe. It was about two hours later when the white man with the yellow hard hat came back and told Mother that at about seven o’clock in the morning, sixty-one men had gone inside the pipe located about fifty yards from the power station. The pipe was curved slightly upward and then sharply downward running directly into the power station. The men encountered about a foot of dirty water and got down to work as usual. Within an hour while they were inside the pipe, the water level began to rise. The men didn’t think it was anything to worry about. The men thought that the water couldn’t be coming from the dam because it was supposed to be closed as is customary whenever the operation of cleaning took place. He told Mother the water kept rising slowly; however, by eight o’clock, the men started to panic. Their supervisor, Mr. Pinkston, apparently tried to keep his men calm by telling them there was plenty of time to get out because there was an exit close to the middle of the pipe. For some unknown reason, the men didn’t listen to their supervisor. Instead they panicked and threw their torches into the water so that they were all covered in darkness. At one point during the disaster, a man appeared at the manhole with a torch, lighted the way, and called to them. About seventeen men managed to get out in the over twenty minutes it took for the water to fill the pipe. Mr. Pinkston said that if the men had listened to him and had remained calm, twenty minutes could have saved more than seventeen of them. With that he walked away without sympathy. Mother demanded from the authorities of the power station the right to see her husband’s body. She told them once she saw the bodies, she was sure she could tell which one was her husband’s. As a result of her insistence, she was allowed to view the bodies of the dead men. Mother said I was too young to come with her, so she left me with a woman who was holding her children at the fence. The company officials said if she insisted on bringing me along, then she wouldn’t be allowed on the premises. I began to cry major tears. I held on to Mother’s skirt while she kept on walking. The woman Mother asked to keep an eye on me took me by the hand and held me like one of her own. It was a few hours later when I saw Mother walking towards the gate of the power station holding Father’s blue and green striped thermos. It was the thermos he usually carried to work after Mother filled it with his lunch. Father’s favorite dish was stewed turkey neck with white rice and lima beans. Mother held the thermos close to her bosom while she kept on shaking her head as she walked to the gate. I could tell from the expression on her face that she didn’t find my father. He was gone for good. Responsibility? It was Miss Rose, Mother’s midwife, who helped her through her hard times. She would wash and cook for her whenever Mother got into her state of depression. Mother and I were expecting a visit from some government officials, but they never came. What was so painful was from Father’s last pay check the power station still took out his retirement contribution. Meanwhile, families who had lost husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins tried to come to terms with their losses. It was months after the tragic incident that Mother came to an understanding. She, along with some of my father’s friends and relatives, gathered at our house one day for encouragement. I took a copy of the morning newspaper and read a continuation of the story to them. The newspaper reported that the supervisor, Mr. Pinkston, distraught by the experience and trying his best to come to terms with the catastrophe, said that the water from the river must have, over a short time, swelled to the point where it suddenly rushed into the pipe. The newspaper said it was believed that three of the panic-stricken men tried to exit and formed a human plug, entombing all. Thirty-three men were found drowned, all heaped together like dirty laundry. Their faces and bodies were completely mutilated. Uncle Kenneth, Bolo, Miss Rose, Miss Nanjappa (Mother’s church sister), Miss Lynette (one of our neighbors), and Cousin Elton were all at our house sitting around the dinner table reminiscing. Uncle Kenneth took a Red Stripe beer from an Igloo cooler and used his teeth to open it. He walked around the table, sat down, and then got up again. “What happen to you, Kenneth?” said Bolo. “Maan,” said Uncle Kenneth, “somet’ing smell fishy ‘bout this blasted accident.” He put the beer to his mouth and took a long, slow, steady drink. “Now, Kenneth,” said Miss Nanjappa, “when you start to think, I know it’s going to be some kind of a government conspiracy you coming up with.” “But, this is for real!” said Uncle Kenneth. “You people never think once that maybe somebody open that dam and kill all them men?” He was saying something that most in our village were saying and thinking, but only in the confines of their bedrooms. It was the general feeling that someone had blundered somewhere for the level of water to have risen so suddenly. Although an investigation by the power company and some government officials had ruled the catastrophe an unfortunate accident, people like Uncle Kenneth saw it as some kind of conspiracy—a deliberate act, no different from what Hitler did with the Jews in Germany— to kill a bunch of black people. Sadly, there wasn’t a motive to justify such a theory. “Kenneth,” said Bolo, “what you saying don’t make sense. “So what you saying, brother maan?” asked Uncle Kenneth as he threw the Red Stripe bottle through the living room window, “that somebody couldn’t let all that water in that long blasted pipe for spite, when they know that all them men was still inside?” “Look, Kenneth, I don’t trust them German people, but, man, them can’t do that in this island and get away with it. I believe it was an accident as they say.” When Bolo finished talking, he got up from around the table and picked up the newspaper with the latest story on the accident. He walked back to the table where he sat down and incident reading. “You’ll fools can believe what you’ll want to believe,” said Uncle Kenneth, “but, as far as I am concern, somebody kill my brother.” Mother got up from around the table. She looked at Miss Rose and then slowly turned towards the kitchen and left everybody looking at Uncle Kenneth in silence. “Maan!” said Bolo, disgustedly. With a nonchalant attitude, Uncle Kenneth took another Red Stripe beer from the Igloo cooler; he opened it again with his teeth and heavily sat down. This time, he drank the Red Stripe beer in silence. When Mother left the table, a terrible fright came over me. It was the fear of now being responsible not only for myself, but for my mother. I knew she depended upon Father for securing my sense of balance, for keeping me in check, and for giving her reassurance that everything would be all right. I got up from the table and went in search for her. I wanted to tell her that the memories of all the things they had done for me, would remain deep in my subconscious, and having learnt from them, I knew time was the best counselor regardless of the many rivers we must cross in our lifetime.

About the Author:
Winston Nugent was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica and grew up on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. He is a Journalist with the U.S. Virgin Islands Legislature. He was the winner of the first College of the Virgin Islands poetry award in 1975. He has received The International Poet of Merit Award (2001) from The International Society of Poets. In 2002 he placed second in the St. Croix Avis Short Story Search Contest for his story, “The Mahogany Tree.” He was selected as a semi-finalist in the International Open Poetry Contest for his poem, “9/11.” His collections of poems include Blue Rain, Negus, On Our Island and Walking In The Footsteps Of My Ancestors. His works have been anthologized in several Caribbean books, to include the University of the Virgin Islands Caribbean Writer series for his poem, The Mongoose, and his short stories, Two Birds With One Stone,” and Many Rivers To Cros” He has worked as a staff writer for the St. Croix Avis and has freelanced for The Virgin Voices magazine, The LA Weekly and The Caribbean Impressions. For several years, Mr. Nugent was a radio journalist and broadcaster for W.S.T.X. AM and FM radio stations. He is the recipient of The Caribbean Writer’s Marguerite Cobb McKay Prize to a writer who is a resident of the Virgin Islands

About the author

Winston Nugent