(This story won first prize in the prose section of the Inaugural Walter Rodney Foundation Creative Writing Competition. Subraj Singh, a University of Guyana student and budding writer, says the story’s setting is intentionally ambiguous. “It can be set in Guyana’s past, present, or future,” Singh told the audience at an award ceremony on May 14, 2014 in the Education Lecture Theatre, University of Guyana, Turkeyen. )
At the front of the house was an old gravel road. The other three sides of the house were bordered by fields of sugar-cane. I was in the backyard, sitting under an ancient, barren mango tree. On full moon nights the cane fields all around were a wondrous sight. They loomed tall and proud above me, like flags in the night-breeze, their long leaves swishing as they snapped at the wind. The moon sailed quickly through the sky, scarred and serene, and I watched it for a while before lying down on a patch of grass in the yard. I could feel a beetle crawling in my hair and the hard earth poked through my vest, stabbing at my breasts. Yet, I loved it. The smell of grass, a green scent which reminded me of games played a hundred years ago, was better than the usual fragrance of sulphur. The black earth, sticking to me like it did to my ancestors, was cooler in my hands than steel. I spread my arms wide and closed my eyes and listened to a song only I could hear, a song sung by the earth and insects and cane plants and wind. Somewhere nearby, the sound of gunshots cracked through the air.
I fell asleep. When I opened my eyes again, the moon was gone and the lights were on in the house, and I could hear people talking. I slowly got up and made my way to the back entrance, securing the door tightly behind me as I entered. The house was a large building, large and old, built since colonial times. I had heard that Shanti, our leader, had inherited the house many years ago. I don’t know if this is true, but it didn’t matter; the house was a safe haven – isolated, hidden, almost unknown – and that was all that was important. I cautiously made my way to the kitchen, where the voices were engaged in heated, whispered discussion. I trailed my hands along the old, yellow-stained walls, trying to feel the conversation before I was in the room, but the walls told me nothing. I turned once and I was there.
Shanti looked up at me, her black eyes alive and wild. She was sitting in a rickety rocking-chair. There were three stolen rifles and great stacks of bullets at her feet. She beckoned me forward and in that deep, rumbling voice of hers boomed out, “Did you cook?” I nodded meekly and took my seat at the table next to Vishnu, who was sitting next to a stranger. I smiled at Vishnu and he smiled back, taking my hand in his. “Where you went?” Shanti asked me, “We didn’t see you when we come in.”
“I was in the yard,” I said. Shanti narrowed her eyes and leaned back slowly in her chair, the many bracelets on her arms jangling as she did so. I could tell she had a rough day. There were wisps of hair sticking out in odd places along the thick, black plait that she usually made of her hair. The roses, hibiscus and buttercups that she fastened daily to her head had dried and smelt slightly of decay. Her shawls, hanging like dead snakes, were draped carelessly over one arm.
She turned away from me and addressed the stranger in the room. He was a tall, thin man. He had a moustache and a cigarette between his teeth. “Can you do it?” Shanti asked him. The man grinned and replied, “Of course I can do it.” She nodded sagely and I felt Vishnu’s grip tighten on my hand. I looked up at him and I could see beads of sweat streaming down his cheek into the light stubble on his face. I kissed his shoulder softly, but he ignored me and focused on Shanti.
“These is tough times,” Shanti was saying, grinning back at the stranger, revealing crooked brown teeth, “The country on fire. We burning all the politicians and we taking Guyana back, and from the ashes, rebuild it. Ash is very important in my religion.” The stranger exhaled a plume of white smoke. He uncrossed his legs and stood up. “I’m ready now,” he said.
The rest of us looked at him, standing in the centre of the room with smoke billowing about his face, clouding our nostrils. I coughed once as Vishnu also stood up abruptly and began leading the man upstairs. Shanti saw the way I was staring at them and she smiled a smile that sent shivers running through me, all the way down to my toes. I looked at her, this woman who everyone revered, this woman who had troops looting, burning, and killing in every part of the country right now, this woman who was fighting to free the country, and I still felt the raw, searing fear that I had known when Vishnu first introduced me to her. She settled back in her chair, adjusting her shawls around herself and hardening her face. Looking very much like a fierce, old dragon, Shanti grandly gestured her hands in the direction of the men, indicating that I must follow. I went after them, leaving her in the kitchen, nestled in her shawls with flowers falling from her hair.
I followed Vishnu and the stranger as they climbed the stairs and approached the largest bedroom. “She was at the seawall,” Vishnu whispered to the other man, “She was skipping school.” I frowned and looked at Vishnu for an explanation, but he remained silent at the door for a while before he replied. “We found Ramraj’s daughter,” he said feverishly to me as he undid the bolts on the door. “We found her since this morning and we had her in the house at Canal. Just now we brought her here, after we got him to come,” he finished, motioning at the stranger. I was now more confused than ever. Ramraj – Richard Ramraj – was a supporter of the cause. He was a writer, a true man of his country, someone whom everyone admired, a man who spoke out against the corruption and greed and dictatorial mindsets of the politicians. Why would we have his daughter here? Was she going to join the revolution?
Vishnu put a finger to his lips and pushed the door open. I peeked in and felt myself go weak. Ramraj’s daughter was lying across a big, wooden bed. She was dressed in her school uniform – pleated blue skirt and a white shirt. Her hands and feet were bound with yellow rope. Her mouth was taped over. Her eyes were wide and overflowing with fear and tears. There was a nasty scratch on her forehead and her body was constantly heaving with uncontrollable sobs. My heart began to bang in my chest, loud as bombs. My palms were sweaty, just like they were the first time I ever pulled a trigger. My mind was numb.
Without thinking I grabbed hold of Vishnu’s arm and dragged him out of the room, slamming the door behind me as I did so, leaving the stranger with the girl. Outside, in the hallway, I pushed Vishnu against the wall and stepped back from him. He remained silent, watching me warily as I walked to and fro, my head in my hands, concern and confusion etched on to my face. I stopped pacing and looked into his eyes. I saw nothing, only emptiness and a coldness that gleamed bright. He opened his mouth to say something but I slapped him, knocking his excuses out of his mouth and sending them echoing down the hallway. He stroked his cheek and stayed silent.
“She’s just a girl, Vishnu. Her father is on our side,” I said accusingly, wringing my hands together so hard that they hurt. His eyes were still cold, but he reached out and dragged me towards him. I tried to pull away but he was too strong for me; he held me tightly against his chest. He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and told me, “She is Ramraj’s daughter. When we were at the house in Canal, we made sure that she believed we’re with the government. She doesn’t know that rebels kidnapped her; she thinks we’re rogue government agents or something. After we’re done here, we’ll send her back and she’ll tell Ramraj what the government’s people did to her. He will openly support us then.”
I tried to draw myself away from him, but he held me close, pinning me to his chest. His lips hovered closely, warm against my ear, and his stubble scratched my cheek whenever he spoke. He smelt of matchsticks and blood tonight. “Ramraj has always been on our side,” I almost shouted at him, “You’ve read his work, you know he’s on our side.” Vishnu pushed me away roughly and I staggered away from him. His eyes were lit with flames that could’ve only been anger. “Ramraj needs to stop hiding behind his books,” he hissed. He grabbed my shoulders and pressed his forehead against mine. “This – what’s going to happen here tonight – is going to make him angry enough to openly rebel, just like the rest of us are doing. The difference is that he is going to bring thousands of Guyanese people along with him,” he said, pressing himself forcefully against me. “It’s just one little sacrifice, and with it we can have thousands of others supporting us. We can win with this. Don’t you want that? Look, the girl needs to be the one to tell him, so we’re going to let her go as soon as we’re finished,” he declared, kissing my forehead.
We stayed there for a while, locked together, trying to gauge and understand each other’s thoughts. There was nothing I could do. The girl was already here and Vishnu was absolutely right; with Ramraj on our side we could become a much more powerful force. I was still scared though. I asked him finally, “What’re you guys going to do to her?” Vishnu opened his eyes and held my hands in his. He led me back to the room and pushed the door open. The stranger was hovering over Ramraj’s daughter. He was stark naked and his jeans and shirt lay in a pile at his feet. He took a last puff from his cigarette and crushed the stub against the wall. The girl was in complete terror and kept trying to scream through her gag. Vishnu said to me, “I just need you to help me hold her down.”
I helped them. As soon as it was done, I fled. I stormed out of the room and down the stairs, through the kitchen, where Shanti remained in her rocking-chair, saying nothing as I flew past her, and out the back door. I fell into the yard and, on my hands and knees, vomited on the grass. The stench from my vomit sprayed over the sweet soil-scent of the yard and the bougainvillea flowers nearby were stained with my shame. I breathed in the soft, fresh air, trying to cool my flaming throat. I got up and dragged my feet along, wrapping my arms tightly around myself. I started to walk and before I knew it I was in the cane fields. The plants surrounded me on every side, thick and high and imposing. The moon was out again, I could see it in between the leaves when I looked up at the sky. I started to move faster. Ankle-deep in the black mud that trapped me like guilt, I tried to run. Tears fell from my eyes, watering the roots of the cane-plants with salt. I sobbed as loudly as she had sobbed. The cane-leaves wiped my tears away and left sharp cuts on my bare arms and face. I just kept running, on and on, trying in vain to hide from the accusing glare of the moon.
© Subraj Singh 2014