Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

I grew up in a little district in St. James, Jamaica called Belfont

A place where to this day, people still catch water to drink and wash clothes in the same river, sometimes at the same time. 

A river that we bathed in bare chested. A river that holds many secrets. 

There were many mornings when, with buckets in hand, rags rolled up in clenched fists and a soap to share among us, we would trudge through the pass to bathe before school. But many mornings, especially when the time was really cold, all we did was glance at the river, shivered and teetering carefully on its edge; expertly performed a provisional cleansing routine we called 'tidying ourselves'.

After performing the 'necessaries', still balancing gingerly on a broad enough rock stone, we would dip our buckets in a 'clean' part of the river above where we had just 'bathe' as our mother had repeatedly instructed us to do and head back up the hill via the same pass that snaked pass Ms. Clemmy's and Cow Son's house. 

We made sure to drag our feet against the tall grass that hugged the dirt pass, confident the dewy moisture from the grass would help erase any overlooked telltale signs of our deceit.

The river used to chatter and clamber merrily over stones on its way to be emptied into the Great River and when I was little it seemed like a pretty big river at the time. 

But later, as I became older and especially when I hadn't been home in a while and I went back to Belfont to visit,  it seemed to have shrunk. 


Where once it used to appear lively and even menacing, especially when it rained and it 'came' down, red and and angry; then, it looked like a toothless old lady, haggard and worn. 

It didn't roar as loud, but barely whispered as it dragged itself over stones, many of which seemed too big for the now tiny looking river bed. 

Killed by a Duppy? - My Father's Death 
Who knows, maybe the river is now feeling guilty for having drowned my father in 1992, one day before my April 24th birthday.

Some people said he could have fallen into the river after he sat on the concrete culvert to rest and as drunk as he was that night, he might have toppled in. 

Still, others felt he had been boxed by a duppy and not just any ordinary duppy, but Mass Wedderburn's duppy.  


My father had 'planted' and buried Mass Wedderburn just hours before at dusk by the light of a bottle lamp with only the man's wife, Ms Lammie, as witness and company. 

Now there is a mighty good reason that in a small, rural district with a river connecting us, no one except my father and Miss Lammie went to Mass Wedderburn's burial. 

I heard that not even a pastor would agree to bury  him and that my father and Miss Lammie simply put him in the hole and covered him up shortly before nightfall.

The rumour was the man was wicked and had moved come to Belfont from a district in Westmoreland only a few years before he was found dead in his old wooden house which was shrouded in bushes. 

For the short time he lived in Belfont, he kept pretty much to himself. 

A small man with a wiry frame, he was fair complexioned and did not really look wicked to me. But he wasn't very friendly and none of us children went to his yard to shelter rain. 


It really wouldn't make sense anyway, as no matter how we craned our necks, we could never even catch a glimpse of his house in the thick bushes beyond the pass that wrapped it self around several corners.

He seemed to live so far, rain would probably drench us before we got to his house anyways. Better to run fast and try make it to Ms. Hortense house around the corner.

Heck! We didn't even know for sure if Mass Wedderburn had a house as none of us children went further than Miss Fan's house. Miss Fan lived the closest to Mass Wedderburn but we still couldn't catch even a glimpse of his house through the bushes even when we were perched on her verandah railing.

Miss Fan had some really bad dogs who guarded her orange trees viciously so we only visited her house when we were sent there by our mothers. 

When she was expecting us someone would chain up the dogs before we got there, but for the most part we would arrive unannounced to pick up a dress or some other garment she had sewn for our mother. Then we had to call loudly and the barking and running dogs would announce our arrival, but we came prepared. 

We would hold off the dogs with a few well placed stones until some one held them back. The most ferocious of them I remember was called Blackie. 

So when my father was found dead face down in the river with fish feasting on his upper lip, Mass Wedderburn's duppy became the prime murder suspect for a number of very valid reasons.


The muddy pass that led to Mass Wedderburn's house was right in front of the culvert that my father fell over and into the river. That helped to make the duppy look pretty guilty if you ask me! Everybody else in Belfont felt the same way.

In addition, a few people confessed that they had overheard Mass Wedderburn say he did not want my father to prepare him for burial. A request my father ignored.

"Listen mi no man! A Blood gi whey him life! Mi hear say when the man teck sick and realise say him ago dead, the man (Mass Wedderburn) say if him live him no want Eustace a him yaad and if him dead, him no want him come look after him! A bad him tink say him bad so?!" My brother Earl exclaimed bitterly on one of the many occasions we sat and discussed the mystery of my father's death.

My Father the Butcher - My Father, the District Mortician
My father, whose real name was Eustace, was a butcher, which earned him the nickname Blood. He worked with Mass Campbell in Bruce Hall near Retrieve to butcher cows for sale. My mother used to always tell him to look a better job as Mass Campbell hardly paid him anything and the few pieces of meat he got to take home to make up for his meagre pay did nothing to appease her. 

She had twelve children to feed, plus some of my cousins who she helped raised until their parents got settled in the United States and sent for them.

From ever since I could remember, my father was the self-appointed undertaker for the poor people in Belfont. Those people who didn't have the money to send their dead to Madden's Funeral Parlour in Montego Bay. 

As far as we knew, my father, who could neither read nor write, had never been formally trained as a mortician. But I grew up with people being in awe of his mortician skills and he wasn't particularly modest about them either! It was something he bragged about whenever he could.

I guess he equated butchering cows and preparing them for sale with preparing dead people to be buried. 

Whatever the 'logic'; my father proudly practiced his mortician services up to hours before he died. 

Mind you, my mother was even more disgruntled about this occupation, as my father was hardly ever paid a cent for those services. 

The dead people he looked after were often those who lived alone and died with few or no close relatives to bury them; or those persons, who knowing his expertise, would ask him to perform their last rites before they died. 

White rum is the closest thing my father got as compensation for his mortician services, much to my mother's disgust. 

She was a devout Christian and couldn't stand the smell of stale rum and death on him nor how he behaved when he was well and truly drunk.

My father, his bravado reinforced by white rum, which always made the usually quiet man talk very loudly and nonstop, would become annoyingly affectionate after consuming at least a few glasses of the potent alcohol.

I loved my father dearly and I was his favourite child. But many evenings when I would get off the bus in Marchmont Road square, I would dodge behind my friends as I tried to escape his loud mouthed, drunken displays of affection. His booming voice would alert me that he was on the loose long before I saw him, but whereas the rum made his gait unsteady, it must have overcompensated by sharpening his eyesight and hearing.

"A who dat? A Christine?! Come here mi Queen!" he would yell loudly while peering out of bloodshot eyes. (Christine is my pet name).

"A my Queen this enno! She bright like morning star! This little girl going to be something sprrecial,' he would slur to everyone and no one in particular as my friends and everyone else would look on with amused smiles. This happened a whole lot while I was growing up.

But my father became popular as a mortician for more than just the fact that people were short of funds and he could be paid with a few bottles of rum. 

Planting the Dead
He was in demand in many other districts for his services and he was especially sought after to 'plant' the dead. Now that I stop to think about it, I suspect he was probably paid a tidy sum for those services, but we never knew for sure as half of whatever he might have been paid was spent on alcohol. 

He would stop at every bar he passed on his way back to Belfont while returning from his 'planting' assignments. 

In those days, people who were particularly troublesome while alive, were planted when they died. It was believed that planting them would prevent them from haunting their loved ones or anyone who they had held a grudge against before they died. 

There are a variety of ways to do plantings. The method chosen would depend on who was being planted and how 'bad' they were perceived to be. Men were planted differently from women. I know of two of the many types of planting and have some vague recollection of a third from snippets of whispered conversations I overheard during one impossibly long night my father spent 'planting' an old lady named 'Aunt' Sue. One of the maybe two times I can recall being present while he worked. (Planting will be dealt with more extensively in another post).

So those assignments were crucial enough to lend credence to my suspicion that some money traded hands in order for those to be done. We also suspected that whatever money our father didn't manage to spend on drinks was probably stolen from him when he became too drink to care.

I still remember one Saturday morning I woke up to see my father sheepishly coming around the side of the house, one side of his face ballooned and shiny, the eye on that side swollen shut and his lip painfully protruding at a weird angle.

He remained stoic and unresponsive to my mother's frantic then incredulous questions as to what happened to his face. 

We eventually concluded that he had gone drinking the night before after receiving his first wages for a short stint to watch the tractor and other equipment that was being used to repair the main road which Belfont Road emptied into. 

He had been on the job only two weeks and had received his fortnightly pay the day before but went drinking before taking up his position in the tractor he was being paid to watch. 

With no confirmation from my father, everyone in the district concluded that he must have fallen asleep while sitting in the tractor. Due to its giant wheels, we assumed my drunk father fell asleep and then fell several feet to the hard, freshly asphalted road below.

Well! The fall must have woken him up in a hurry and knocked him sober! As he was very sullen and quiet the morning after though he still smelled like stale rum.

That story got told and re-told many times when my father died, and we all agreed that if that fall from the tractor did not kill him; surely, a man who was by then a seasoned drunkard could not have been killed by simply falling into the river!

"If anything, the water woulda sober him up," the district 'jury' reasoned. "No man! Something not right!" was the general consensus.

And so it was theorized that because my father had gone to plant Mass Wedderburn despite Mass Wedderburn's death bed wish that he leave him alone, Mass Wedderburn's freshly risen duppy lay wait for my father and give him a rahtid box, knocking him over the bridge and into the river below where he lay dead for an entire day until Miss Bibby's daughter, Joy, who  had gone to catch drinking water, spied him face down in the river. 

Joy's frightened screams brought everyone close by running, thinking something bad had happened to her.


They told me that the half of bread my father had purchased from my brother Earl at the small grocery shop he operated down the road from our house was still under his arm when he was taken from the river. That also puzzled everybody and sparked a few more theories that pointed fingers even more steadily at Mass Wedderburn's duppy.

However, at least two other theories emerged that were just as convincing, if not as popular.

The Day My Father Died


The day my father died
I could not cry;
My mother cried,
Not I.

His face on the pillow
In the dim light
Wrote mourning to me,
Black and white.

We saw him struggle,
Stiffen, relax;
The face fell empty,
Dead as wax.

I'd read of death
But never seen.
My father's face, I swear,
Was not serene;

Topple that lie,
However appealing:
That face was abscence
Of all feeling.

My mother's tears were my tears,
Each sob shook me:
The pain of death is living,
The dead are free.

For me my father's death
Was my mother's sorrow;
That day was her day,
Loss was tomorrow.

Mervyn Morris, 1973


17 comments:

  1. Fresh, funny and feeling-ful. Great storytelling Andrea. Waiting with baited breath for the next post! Gonna re-read.

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  2. The pen a talk some tings girl! Awe-inspiring as usual Andrea. Takes me waaaay back in some instances, some I can totally relate to while others I just know and shred because of others...nevertheless, each story brings back many memories of my youth among other things. Wey di book de??????

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  3. I await patiently for the next Chapter. Nice!!! The poem was very deep girl

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  4. Hi Guys, thanks for taking the time to read. Thanks Nicole. It is VERY Feeling-FUL indeed. The journey back home involves a lot of things and writing about some of the past experiences in my life is one process.

    Anmour, this IS the book. One blog post/chapter at a time. When I am done, I will put them all together, add more dialogue.. tighten some parts and attempt to publish. I am not in any rush. The memories are arriving and announcing themselves one at a time.

    Thanks Lecia.. I got so much things to say... more will definately be posted.

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  5. Andrea this is amazing. I am with Anmour on this, we need the book! You have me sitting here wanting to turn the page...MORE, MORE, MORE! MUCH love and HUGE respect.

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  6. Thanks Debs... There will be MORE. This 2nd blog post came just two days after the first one published on Monday. Three-five days earlier than once a week postings I promised.

    Now that I have opened the 'shoe box' of memories, they are arriving post haste, anxious to be written and shared.

    Stay tuned. There will be MORE. PROMISE! :)

    Thanks again for taking the time to read, for commenting and for following this blog. Appreciate it! <3

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  7. There is much wisdom in writing a chapter at a time such as life that we must live one day at a time. You will get there. Looking forward to tagging along on your journey.

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  8. Good job Downer, I actually felt I was sitting on a veranda in a comfy chair, knees hugged toward my chest watching all this unfold.

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  9. Thanks Nerissa (Mz Truly Caribbean) Look forward to your company. :)

    Thanks A... Hmmm U called me 'Downer'.. Sounds soo familiar! :) Happy you could relate.

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  10. Me same one Downer, again, good reading, Duppy and all.

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  11. LOL.. But I still DON'T know for sure who it is!! I just know that few people called me Downer and it is someone who knows me very well and from long time! Thanks! Appreciate the support and comments.

    God Bless.

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  12. Andrea, it is coming along beautifully. So much that stood out. I get this poetic journey. In this Chp. alone, you could write a book. Who are these people that you mention? Why are you mentioning them? How import are they to the story? Since this is just a first draft, I can't get much into editing. Still, me want to know about everyone. I want to be able to recognize them should I visit your town. So give me some discription, also. Again, love this chpt. Want to know about the planting, too.

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  13. Heya Debs... Since the other Deborah commented already, I am going to make the 'intelligent' assumption that this is Deborah B... LOL as Deborah Dee has already put in her 2 pance worth.

    Girl, I start this thing and go dig up ants nest!! The chapters are coming in fast and furious and the memories dem a box, box me up more terrible dan how Mass Wedderburn duppy box mi fada!! *groans* Lord! What have I done!?? SIGH! LOL

    Thanks for this very probing and insightful feedback Debs. Appreciate it hon. Yes the planting bit needs to be 'got' out of the way, in fact, now that u have prompted me by asking these VERY valid questions.. I am going to jump right into chapter 3!! :) It should be posted when you log in later.

    Please feel free to send your comments re specific editing points to my FB inbox. This blog is me just getting main memories out my head and onto paper then I will tighten up, add some major elements that wont be online like fam pics.. a pic of me at abt 9 years old (I know! PRICELESS! Plse get ready to laff! LOL) and one of me in high school (if me can fine it) and lots more good stuff including MORE DIALOGUE.. MORE DIALECT, both national dialect and Belfont dialect so you know how dat ago go! LOL More details and characters etc.

    But and so.. right now, I am taking ALL constructive criticisms on board. SO critique away hon! PLEASE!! Will look out for the mail later or in the coming days! Thanks!

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  14. Well, I just started reading, one chapter a day until I catch up....Nice read so far.

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  15. Thanks Sam... U will catch up, :)

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  16. Hey Jolie...this book is a best seller...how yuh lef wi hanging? lol...I'm sorry about the way your dad died though you made it entertaining. Not because we are friends, but this is the best book I've read in a very long time. This book depicts country life to the fullest. I did not have those experiences but you brought them to life on the pages of this pc...lol. I can't wait for the next chapter. I definitely cannot wait for the actual book so I can read it from cover to cover. Believe me I just read Ky-mani Marley's book and was disappointed. He had a great story to tell but the book was poorly written...Big up mi fren...

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  17. LOL ok Monica. Thanks. WOrking on it, one blog post at a time. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! :)

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