“Brother” is a story that was published in slightly different version in an anthology of short fiction called Jewels of the Caribbean (Potbake Productions, 2014). When I took it to a workshop in Trinidad beforehand, the general consensus was that it was inauthentic; obviously, they said, I didn’t know the central character very well. That one made me laugh. Brother has been my friend and neighbor for almost twenty years. He lives in the bush in a shack with no lights, phone, stove or fridge. True, he is a quite the mystic man. He smokes plenty of marijuana, prefers fantasyland to the everyday struggle of real life, and dwells in his own make-believe world. But every time I pass, he invites me to share a cup of cacao tea and sit by his fire for a while, and we have traded many interesting and amusing stories over the years. So why did the other Caribbean writers automatically assume that I was in capable of writing about my friend? Could it be because they viewed me as just another expat who couldn’t possibly begin to understand him? No, man! According to Brother, we’re compatriots. He views my version of his life story as apropos. Not only that, he says the gloomy ending feels like a blessing, not a curse!)
© Kristine Simelda, 2015
Brother is immersed in an extraordinary dream when the sun rises over the mountaintop and wakes him. Eager to get back to sleep, he pushes the half-rotten shutter closed with his bare foot and repositions the pillow between his legs. He lingers for a moment in the hazy space between the real world and dreamland before succumbing to the obvious choice. He closes his eyes, pulls the frayed blanket over his head, and resumes his fantasy.
The island has morphed into the shape of a reclining nude. Brother takes her face, which curiously resembles the engorged bud of an orchid, between his hands. He tenderly explores the hidden features of her stamens and sepals and ovules until her quivering petals burst into bloom. Then he soars across the valley and arrives at a tree of young coconuts. Selecting a matching pair, he lops off their tops and sucks until they are fully drained. He then proceeds to his lover’s navel, a secret pool located beneath a thundering waterfall. She arches her back and moans as he straddles her torso and laps at the liquid accumulated there. Refreshed, Brother moves on to the top of her tallest peak. He gazes down the steep slopes of her forested thighs from the summit, and, taking a deep breath, dives into her steaming crater.
Abraham “Brother” Coffey grew up in town. As a youth, he was bright, athletic, and extremely popular. His parents were members of the hardworking middle class, completely devoted to him. Even when money was tight, they didn’t hesitate to sacrifice for the benefit of their only child.
His mother was getting ready for one their rare nights out with friends when his father noticed her new dress. “When you bought that fancy thing?” he quizzed her.
“You like it? It was on clearance sale.”
“Woman, how can you waste money like that when you know school time is fast approaching? The boy will need new books and bags and proper shoes if he wants to get a jumpstart on the rest of his classmates. You want him to end up like me, trapped in a dead end job with nothing to look forward to but a measly retirement fund in his old age?”
“And what about me? I’m tired of wearing the same old clothes to the same boring job day after day,” his mother groused.
“Well, best you get used to it. Brother still has three more years of secondary school and then there’s college.”
“I know. I know,” she sighed.
Although he could sympathize with his mother’s restlessness, Brother acquiesced to his father’s wishes. He studied hard and graduated near the top of his class. But the legacy of his mother’s side of the family continued to haunt him. She said her ancestry could be traced way back to the Negres Marrons, the runaway slaves who defied the colonial masters in days gone by, and he was fascinated by their history.
“My great, great, great grandparents escaped from the plantation and hid in the central part of the island hundreds of years ago. Some of my family has lived in those mountains ever since,” she said one night at dinner. “My aunts and uncles grow their own food, bathe in the river, and live in harmony with nature’s ways. It might be fun to pay them a visit during the school break.”
“Why in the world would you want to do that?” his father scoffed. “You want Brother running wild in the jungle like his ragamuffin cousins?
“Sometimes the simple ways are the best ways,” his mother said quietly. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll manage to disappear back into the hills, too.”.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You still have another ten years before you’re eligible for your pension. By then it will be too late.”
“I hope not,” she whispered under her breath.
Brother successfully completed a degree in civil engineering at the local college. His first job was as an apprentice to a well-respected surveyor who was about to retire. Like his mother, he loved the being outdoors, preferred working in the field to sitting behind a desk. After he took over the office, he repainted the shingle, and then strode out in his Wellington boots to gain intimate knowledge of every nook and cranny of his rugged homeland. Staking out claims of his own as he went, he trod the ridges and ravines, the rivers and the valleys with pride and determination.
His long term goal was to hold a thick stack of titles bearing his name, and eventually he succeeded. By the age of thirty, Brother had become a virtual land baron and was considered to be a good catch by many female admirers. Sometimes, when he straggled in from the bush muddy and exhausted, each of the mismatched chairs that lined the narrow hallway leading to his office was occupied by various colors, shapes, and sizes of sweet-smelling women. Brother sampled them all before settling on Betty, a young paralegal. She had seemed so sensible compared to the rest of them, and so beautiful. But even though Brother was land rich, he was frequently cash poor, and the cost of maintaining a woman like Betty in style was dear.
“I don’t see why the main portion of our assets has to be in undeveloped real estate,” she often complained. “And why do we have to live in this tiny space above the office and bounce around in that rickety old Land Rover? It’s embarrassing when all of our friends have their own homes and drive nice cars.”
Not wanting to emulate his father’s stinginess, Brother took out a loan to accommodate Betty’s wishes. They moved into a two-story house with all the amenities, and bought a brand new SUV. But after a while he began to feel trapped. His wife’s never-ending quest for social status and expensive material possessions went against his basic belief that the only thing of true value was land.
“I’m tired of living on credit so we can measure up to other people’s standards,” he shouted. “On my mother’s side of the family, I’m a son of the soil, you know. I need to get back into the bush!”
“But we have everything we need right here in town. All of our friends are close by,” Betty whined.
Brother busied himself pulling on his boots. “I have field work to do, damn it!”
Betty was dismayed. “Brother is away on business,” she told her friends when he disappeared for weeks at a time. “He’s got a lead on a lovely piece of property. Once he clears the title, we expect to make a huge profit.”
She got the house and the car, and he got stuck with the loan payments when they divorced. Brother had never been in favor of borrowing all that money, and without her additional income to keep him afloat, he soon fell into arrears. Piece by piece, the Credit Union repossessed his land holdings, leaving him financially and emotionally bankrupt.
Brother wakes up with a smile on his face. Truth be told he feels liberated by his current state of affairs. Yah, man. The island is the perfect companion for his old age—no nagging, no guilt, and no responsibility. Grinning at the prospect of another carefree day, he stretches his cramped legs over the side of the cot and steps outside to relive himself. He enjoys a cup of coffee, and then brushes his few remaining teeth with a twig of eucalyptus. A double rainbow is slung over his garden while he weeds his yams. Dozens of blue-black swifts glisten in the fractured sunlight, swooping low to devour the bounty of insects that swarm across the pale blue sky. At lunchtime, he gorges on ripe mangoes. Afterwards, he puffs on a spliff of homegrown weed hoping it will inspire an arousing daydream during his afternoon nap. He is not disappointed. Only this time the tables are turned. The island, wet and wild, makes love to him.
She comes in the shape of a swallowtail. The butterfly floats above his bare chest, occasionally brushing his nipples with the tips of her delicate wings while he relaxes in the shade. Hovering over his face, she stares at him adoringly, antennae twitching. She flutters to the tip of his nose and explores his nostrils, eyes, and ears with her thirsty proboscis. She flits lower. Brother watches entranced as she dances an erotic ballet on the tip of his penis. After they copulate, she lays her eggs amidst his pubic thatch, and then drifts away. He bids her farewell, and then reenters the so-called real world.
Brother whistles a cheerful tune as he heads for home. He’s lost most everything he once valued so dearly, yet he still feels blessed. Why would he worry when the island supplies all his needs—food, water, shelter, not to mention being the world’s greatest lover? If he gets lonely, all he has to do is dip into his imagination. Why, just this afternoon he discussed his unconventional love life with a flock of red and green parrots while he bathed in the river. Passing up the ravine, an agouti cut him the sweet eyes, and he winked back. He saluted the giant Chatannyé tree that guards the entrance to the rainforest and could have sworn it waved its leaves in acknowledgement.
He sits down cross-legged on a flat stone at the top of the ridge and stares towards the distant sea. He makes the shape of a triangle with his hands and waits patiently to witness the final event of a day: the legendary emerald drop. An electric strobe of light temporarily blinds him at the precise moment when the sun sinks into the sea. Green dots float across his vision while he takes in the psychedelic colors of the sunset.
Brother ducks inside his cabin and prepares to settle down for the night. Choirs of frogs and crickets are accompanied by the soulful calls of night herons as he dines on a sancoche of dasheen and watercress. He picks up his drum and chants along with nature’s chorus until he starts to feel drowsy. Blowing out the kerosene lamp, he closes the window, crawls into bed, and stares into the darkness. Fireflies blink hypnotically on the underside of the rusted metal ceiling as Brother contemplates his rocky past. He had such lofty plans when he was young, grand intentions to tame the bush and rule the mountains. But élas. Look at him now—a crazy old man who chats with parrots, flirts with rodents, and kowtows to big trees.
Brother loved Betty, and losing her broke his heart. But he had loved his property more. The best years of his life had been spent acquiring it, and his heart was set on getting his land back. After she left him, he closed down the office in town, packed up his surveying gear, and headed for the nearly deserted Windward side of the island. The farmers who tried to eke out an honest living on the east coast had all but given up by the time he arrived. Bananas for export had died a slow death thanks to globalization, and traditional root and tree crops were being bypassed in favor of junk food. But Brother got wind of another crop which could be grown in secret on derelict land and make him a rich man. He invested in a sloop, a sailboat which he naturally christened Betty, and made a living smuggling cannabis to and from the French islands. Every time the bank auctioned off one of his former pieces of real estate, he managed to have a down payment. And once property was reacquired, he refused to sell it no matter the profit.
“What you want with all that land, man?” his neighbors asked. “Don’t you know you must die one day and leave it behind?”
Brother ignored them. As his portfolio grew fatter, his standing in his adopted community increased. He was still a handsome man in his middle years, and quickly gained favor in the eyes of his fellow villagers. On Saturday nights he didn’t mind throwing back a couple of shots of rum among his partners, but come Sunday morning his silver streaked locks were gathered up under the brim of a straw planter’s hat, his boots were shined, and his beard was neat as he drove to church.
“Brother’s all right,” they said. “He drinks a bad rum, but he knows how to praise the Lord.”
The people in the village, who had long been searching for a savior, wasted no time electing him head of their counsel. Brother rose to the task. He organized the repair of feeder roads, supervised work crews to clean out the drains, and commissioned young acrobats to trim wayward trees. Everyone, including women for miles around, loved and respected him. Whenever there was an important decision to be made or a matter of propriety to be sorted out, he was the first to be consulted. But after a while his competence and popularity began to rub his neighbors the wrong way.
“Who does Brother think he is, anyway?” village gossip wanted to know.
“Yeah,” said a bus driver. “What right does he have to come here and tell us what to do?”
A shopkeeper wondered, “Why doesn’t he go back to town where he belongs and leave us alone?”
When drains clogged up and roads washed out and wives decided to leave their husbands, everybody automatically blamed it on Brother. Little by little they shut him out of their daily lives and their business; stopped speaking to him and warned their children to do the same. The ladies who had once worshiped him suddenly shunned him. The Parish priest, fed up with his lack of reverence and humility, made a last ditch effort to get him to confess his sins before selling him out to the appropriate authorities.
Brother was dozing at Betty’s wheel when he heard the roar of the inboard engines bearing down on the sloop. He barely had time to open his eyes before the bullhorns announced the arrival of the Coast Guard. “Awété! Awété apwézan!” the gendarmes bellowed in Creole. His boat was sandwiched between the two arresting vessels like a slab of cheese while the officers rushed aboard with weapons drawn. They slapped handcuffs on his wrists before he could defend himself. Brother winced as they threw back the tarpaulin that covered the thinly disguised bales of contraband in the hold. He was busted, pure and simple, and there was nothing he could do or say that would change it.
The police confiscated his drugs, his gun, and his boat, and threw Brother in jail. After being convicted of the possession of 327 kilograms of cannabis with the intent to supply, and possession of a firearm and 116 rounds of ammunition with the intention to endanger life, he served sixteen months in a French prison. While he was incarcerated, the bank took away his land yet again, and the villagers pilfered his tools. Brother, who by this time had lost his faith in women, financial institutions, law enforcement agencies, the penal system, the church, and humanity in general, was deported back to the island. But with nowhere to live and no way to do his work, he roamed the streets of town like a vagrant. Although he had paid his debt to society, people viewed him as a dangerous character.
“You’re not seeing how small Brother got in jail?”
“It looks like the virus attacked him, not so?”
It was in the best interest of the community, they agreed, to completely avoid him.
Initially wounded by his banishment from society, Brother soon came to consider it a blessing. Now that he was cut loose from his role of responsible citizen, he was finally free to do what he loved most—explore his magnificent homeland. He picked his way along old hunting tracks, discovered hidden waterfalls, stumbled on secret caves, and pinpointed previously unknown ruins on the map. In the course of his travels, he unearthed an abandoned estate that he calculated lay at the exact center of the island. Once he had cleared away the weeds, he found there was food and water galore. Mature trees of mango, avocado, coconut, and citrus grew in abundance, and an underground spring bubbled up from under the cliff. The small shack he built at the top of the ridge had a magnificent view. Even though he had no tools, it was the perfect place to relax and do his chosen work. Although he had no tools, he pretended to survey the island from top to bottom and from shore to shore. Although he held no title for the land, there was no doubt in Brother’s mind that the place was truly his spiritual home.
The more time passed the more he lost track of it. It would be hard to say when he first started making love to the island. The affair had blossomed naturally, organically, like how the sun always rose in the east and set in the west or the way the night sky perpetually wrapped itself around Polaris. Yet by minding his own business and hoping everyone else would do the same, Brother once again alienated his neighbors. Even though he hadn’t been down the hill in ages, everything that went wrong the village was blamed on him.
Rumors began to circulate.
“What’s Brother doing up on that mountain all by himself?
“He must be hiding from something, oui?”
“And where is his woman?”
“Humph! Let’s bet he’s buggering animals on the side.”
The villagers were taking no chances. They peeped out of their keyholes at exactly midnight to watch out for Brother. The fact that no one ever saw him in the village made no difference. They sprinkled grains of salt around their homes and placed blue bottles around the perimeter of their yards. In their suspicious minds, he was a problem that needed solved.
Brother, of course, was completely unaware of their animosity. Amused by the past and untroubled by the future, he was presently tucked in his bed looking forward to the renewal of his splendid dream; to rendezvous with his secret lover was his only desire. He had already positioned the pillow between his legs in preparation for her arrival when a commotion in the yard disturbed his meditation.
Angry voices called out his name. “Brother, we know you’re in there!” they hollered.
Hefty rocks bounced off the tin roof. “Come out, gason, or else!”
Brother was surprised to see his shack is surrounded by hostile villagers when he peeked outside.
In the moonlight, Brother could see a priest was among them, repeatedly making the sign of the cross. “What do you want from me?” he called out.
“We want you to be like us,” the villagers said in unison.
“How you mean?” Brother said.
“Act normal, have a woman, drink rum!” they jeered.
Brother shook his head. “I tried that. It didn’t work.”
“Well, if you can’t fit in, then you’ll have to go!”
“Go where?” he wanted to know.
“Go to Hell!”
Before he could comprehend what was happening, someone tossed a lit torch under his cellar. The popping sound it made as it ignited the wooden floorboards rang in his ears, and his nostrils filled with acrid smoke. Tongues of fire licked under the doorstep and probed at the windowsill. The tattered curtain went up in flames. Brother beat at the glowing bits of cloth that floated around the room in search of more combustibles with his blanket, but they seared his fingertips and the attached themselves to his hair and his beard.
As the fire advanced, he retreated to his cot and hugged his pillow. His mind flashed on his mother. Her faith in the benevolence of the land to save her from a humdrum life she had no desire to live inspired him to keep the faith. Brother closed his eyes and prayed for deliverance, not to be dispensed by Almighty God, but to be given freely by his beloved island. As usual, she did not disappoint. While the villagers stood back and waited for the fire to cleanse the mountain of the plague called Brother, he found himself lying face up under a soothing waterfall. Crayfish nibbled at his charred toes and bright pink dragonflies darted in and out of his parched lips as he settled down into his beautiful dream.