Author: Carolita Blythe
The tiny swallow-tailed doctor birds fluttered
idly by as the stars cast a dizzying spell. Bertha Rodgers sucked in
a lung full of air and cast her eyes downward, wondering exactly how
deep the translucent waters of the Rio Grande really were. It was close
to midnight, but the sky was lit so brilliantly, she could see clear
to the river’s banks. The water shimmered under the moon’s silvery stare,
casting a rusty glow off her husband’s face. It was their anniversary,
twenty-five years to the day she and George were first married. She
had been planning this midnight ride on the narrow bamboo raft for two
years now, ever since their only son died.
George had once been a licensed raftsman
on the river and, had it been necessary could probably have negotiated
the course with his eyes closed. This night, he began the two and a
half mile journey from Berrydale, just north of Port Antonio, the place
they had started their first ride together two decades before. That’s
when the banana trade was booming and Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming became
the area’s most famous residents.
Bertha used to take rides with George at
the end of his shift. She usually rode up front, her legs folded under
her, her right hand gently caressing the cool, calm waters. She loved
to just sit back and watch her husband row. She loved the way his body
leaned to this side or that, the way his knees bent and his powerful
brown arms propelled the raft forward. After George navigated the raft
through a wide grotto, he would leave its helm to join his wife. The
stretch of river from there on was a narrow one and he didn’t have to
worry about floating off course. Bertha’s mother had worshiped her husband
until the day she died and Bertha believed she had found such a love
But on this, their twenty-five year anniversary,
it wasn’t easy getting George to agree with the little trip, romance
having left his bones half-way through the marriage. So Bertha told
him they could park the raft on the right bank away from the torch lights
and that she’d climb on top of him, just like she used to. Well, George
knew lots of women who’d climb on top of him and they lived much closer
than Port Antonio so Bertha fed him some white rum, did her face up
real pretty and begged. After three glasses of rum, he grudgingly and
And when they got to the river, she fed
him even more rum, this time in the form of her mother’s favorite spiced
punch, the kind he liked best, with pimento seeds floating around at
the bottom. George didn’t come to sit with her as they drifted through
the narrow stretch. Bertha could see his body waver a little to this
side and that. He sang a lone tune, a drunk man’s melody and she knew
it was time. She looked towards the sky but the moon seemed to be frowning
and a chill ran down her spine. The heavens grew darker and she sipped
some of the punch herself, trying to kill her own personal demons. She
crawled the length of the raft, afraid that standing upright might tip
it over. She slowly made her way over to her husband and hovered haltingly
behind him. Finally she closed her eyes, counted silently to three,
extended her arms and pushed with every ounce of strength in her body.
There was little protest, the rum having served its anesthetic purpose.
She watched, both horrified and exhilarated as George’s head sank slowly
below the water. Bertha sighed a twenty-five year sigh. She was finally
When Bertha looked up, she realized that
she was standing before the tiny mirror in her bedroom. There was no
Rio Grande, no raft, no rum punch and George was at work. She realized
she had not really killed her husband, but it was a pretty liberating
idea nonetheless and a tiny smile crept across her face. She still believed
George killed her only child but what was taking his life going to accomplish.
It would only get her thirty years at the St. Catherine’s Women’s Prison
where she would have to share a six-by-eight foot concrete cell with
the chinks and spiders.
Bertha studied the small lines that cut
into her dark skin. There were the two that enveloped her mouth and
several that sprang out from the corners of her eyes. She hated smiling
because that would only draw attention to her lips and deepen the lines.
Still, she swirled on a touch of gloss. It was cherry-flavored and the
package said it was guaranteed to make him want more. And she dragged
the black eye pencil across her top and bottom lids. It didn’t look
half-bad, she thought. Kind of made her look a little like Cleopatra,
minus all the hair. If only there wasn’t that ugly gash just above her
left eye, the one she had gotten as a girl, after falling out of that
She had passed a straightening comb through
her short, bushy hair, negating the Afro and getting her hair so thin
and straight, she was afraid to touch it, lest it might break. She burned
the tips of both ears in the process, but it was worth it. She saw the
way George looked at that Sandy girl in the market and she had straight
hair and black eye make-up. It seemed to be the look that all the men
liked. Only problem was, the girls they were looking at were half her
age. And to top it all off, she couldn’t tweeze the grays out fast enough.
Bertha inhaled deeply, sucking in the humidity. She used to think she
was the reason George got around so much. She used to think that maybe
he was right for hitting her with that stone when he came home that
night and his supper wasn’t ready. It wasn’t easy working down on the
docks and then having to come home to an empty table. She used to give
every ounce of her strength and every inch of her soul to try to make
it work, but now she was tired of trying, at least for George she was.
As she stood before the mirror she saw the young girl whose own life
got lost in her husband’s and the woman who now had nothing to show
for it, no marriage, no son, no independence. Still, she saw hope. In
fact, she felt giddy with it. And that hope came in the form of a boy
young enough to be her son.
Rusty Brathwaite was the neighborhood heart-throb,
the best football player in all of Jamaica and a future member of the
National Team. He even had good manners. He rode a motorcycle, a silver,
smoke-sputtering, engine-revving contraption that made so much noise,
it signaled to everyone within a two-block distance that he was home.
And as much noise as there was in Trenchtown, between the screaming
babies and the reggae-blaring sound systems, Rusty’s motorcycle managed
to stand out against the din. But what a wonderful sound it was to Bertha.
When she heard the belching of that motor, she’d stop whatever she was
doing and head out to her front gate just so she could see him ride
on by. She felt so silly sometimes, like a teenage girl, but she just
couldn’t help it. She had known Rusty since he was seven, when his mother
Denise moved to Trenchtown, trying, like many others before her, to
run away from a woeful past. And when Denise Brathwaite went to change
those rich white people’s bed sheets uptown, Bertha would baby-sit Rusty
He was like a little brother to her son Eldridge, five years younger.
But twelve long years had changed Rusty
into the man she would probably have tried to get the eye of had she
still been a teenage girl. Today, she planned on asking him a favor.
The sink in the backyard was acting up and he was so good at those things.
Her heart beat wildly as she placed the last stitch of gloss on her
lips. She adjusted the thin straps on her white summer dress and bit
her bottom lip nervously.
“Bettah stop lookin’ in dis mirror. Ain’t
gonna get much bettah than dis, an dis ain’t too good. What make me
t’ink he gonna look at me anyway I don’t even look as good as his mother.
I look ten years older than I really am. Who am I trying to fool.”
Bertha looked into the mirror one more time
and saw her son’s lifeless face. She heard the knock that greeted her
front door that night. She remembered how different it sounded. It wasn’t
a knock denoting happiness. It was the hollow knock of the angel of
death and it was a sound she would never forget. The constable spat
out his words and the next thing she remembered was sitting in the police
car, the cool night wind pounding against her face. They proposed closing
the windows, twice, but she resisted. The wind was her only reminder
that she was still alive. George had not returned home that night so
she had to do it all by her herself. And when she saw her baby’s face,
she didn’t cry, fear having frozen her tears. She just caressed his
cold, lifeless cheeks and nodded her head in the affirmative.
The faint revving of an engine could be
heard and Bertha was driven back to the present. She fiddled with her
clothes, her hair, and then ran out of the bedroom, through her small
living area, across the veranda and out to her gate. First she stood
with both hands on her hips, then with one hand on the gate, the other
on her left hip, then she placed both hands on the gate. She looked
about the streets at the young girls walking about, perky breasts standing
at attention behind form fitting t-shirts. Hers took a more leisurely
stance. Their asses were firm, like two breadfruits stuffed into too
small a plastic bag. Hers were like balloons that had barely survived
a long drawn-out birthday party She sighed deeply to herself as Rusty
came into view, dread locks flying, arms flexed to reveal taut, young
A loud thump, thump came from Bertha’s chest.
She thought her heart would explode. There was a burning sensation in
her stomach and it felt as though it had lodged itself in her throat.
She could feel the sweat moisten her brow. As his bike approached her
gate, her breath grew heavier.
“What am I doing,” she mumbled, “what am
I doing? He’s only a boy. Nineteen. He could be my son. . .but. . .Bertha
closed her eyes, brought her clenched hands to her bosom and whispered,
“‘There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but
God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye
are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape that
ye may be able to bear it’, Corinthians 10:13.”
Bertha sighed and made the sign of the across.
But then she caught another glimpse of Rusty Brathwaite and before she
could stop herself, Rusty’s name flowed from her lips. He glimpsed over,
nodded his head and slowed the bike down, coming to a stop in front
of his own house down the street.
“Oh God. What am I doing? What am I really
doing? What am I going to say to him? All right. I need my pipe fixed.
I’ll just ask him to do it and tell him I’ll pay him five dollars. But
is that too little or too much? What if he’s busy?”
“Hi, Ms. Rodgers.”
Bertha startled. She didn’t hear him walk
“Hello, Rusty. . .Ahh, so how’s you mother?”
“I get a lettah yesterday. She all right.
Much bettah pay at those Montego Bay Hotels. So, you need me for somet’ing?”
Bertha realized she was staring.
“Oh, yeah. Ahm, my pipe. It ahm, de one
in de back. It need fixin’.”
“Wha’s wrong with it?”
“It drips. It won’t stop. The water just
keep comin’ out.”
“Okay, well, let me take a look at it,”
he said as he walked past her.
He knew exactly where the pipe was. He had
been in her yard a thousand times, played hide and go seek in the back
with Eldridge, had played marbles on the veranda, had fixed a couple
of other things around the house. Bertha followed him around the side
of the house, past the few lime trees, out past the bathhouse, past
the two tiny rooms she rented out and onto the gravel walkway that lead
to the sink in question. He slowly bent his tall frame over and fiddled
with the faucet.
Rusty had a reddish brown complexion and
if you looked real closely, tiny freckles across his nose. His black
eyes were large and luminous and when he looked at her, Bertha could
swear he was looking right to her soul. His lips were full and a small
mole lay just above the left corner. Bertha wondered what it would be
like to press her mouth against his.
“You all right, Ms. Rodgers?”
“Of course,” she said, but she knew she
wasn’t. “What did you say?”
“I said I need to get mi tools. Is just
a dislodge washah. I’ll be right back.”
“Oh yeah, right. Okay.”
Bertha stared after him, the confidence
in his form, the stride in his walk. She watched him until she could
see him no more, until he disappeared behind his own gate. She remembered
when his stride was but an awkward stumble, when he seemed so removed
from the world around him. She remembered the first time she ever saw
him, a tiny scared boy, holding firmly to his mother’s leg. Bertha was
just beginning to realize the deterioration of her own marriage when
Denise and Rusty moved into Trenchtown.
Rusty returned carrying a small tool box,
quickly worked with the faucet, and within ten minutes was through.
Bertha couldn’t help wishing that she was still eighteen years old.
She was good looking then, her dark skin complemented by a high forehead,
slightly upturned nose and full lips. She wasn’t embarrassed to put
on a short skirt or to tell a man how she felt about him. But eighteen
years was over two decades before and those ensuing years had replaced
her confidence with pain and doubt.
“Well, that’s it,” he said, “everyt’ing’s
working all right.”
As he picked up his tools, Bertha couldn’t
help but notice the way his t-shirt hugged his upper arms. She could
see the muscles across his back. He turned to meet her eyes.
“You sure everyt’ing all right, Ms. Rodgers?”
“Yeah, just thinking how you were just a
little boy yesterday.”
“Yesterday was a whole lot o’years ago,”
he said. He was standing so close, she could see the tiny pearls of
sweat beginning to form on his brow.
“Well, you still a little boy compared with
me. I’m an ol’ woman.”
“You ain’t old, Mrs. Rodgers.” He looked
around a bit. “Friday’s four years since Eldridge died.”
“He was mi big breddah.”
“It seems to get ‘arder every year, you
know. I can’t explain. And George don’t even feel anyway ’bout it, so
is just me. Nights ‘specially hard.”
“Why don’t you come down to Hellshire Beach
with me? They always ‘ave party Fridays.”
“I’m not much for parties, Rusty.”
“Then we won’t go to the party. We just
sit, look at the water. That way, you don’t have to be alone, worryin’
all night ’bout t’ings an’ if you want, you can talk to me, and if I
need to, I can talk to you.
She began to shake her head.
“If you need to talk to you’ ‘usband. . .”
Bertha cut him off. “We don’t talk. . .’bout
“Then you come.”
He held her hand and stood up. Bertha fidgeted
in her pocket for five dollars, handed it to him, thanked him for his
work and watched as he walked out.
Suddenly, he stopped. “You do somethin to
“Yes?” she said questioningly.
“It look good.”
The dinner Bertha prepared for George that
evening was never eaten. In fact, he never made it home, which suited
Bertha just fine. When he did finally stumble in, just before the rooster’s
first crow, he crawled into bed all dead and cold and stinking of white
rum and the stench of another woman. Bertha had long since realized
that she had married the devil. In fact, she found a root growing in
the backyard that her auntie had once told her, if used properly, could
negate any movable obstacle. Well, Bertha waved that thing over George’s
head each night for an entire year. She would then climb back into bed
and pray and hope, but each morning he’d still be right next to her
snoring and wheezing in that way that made her skin crawl. The only
person that root seemed to affect was her. She waved it so damned much,
she sprained her wrist.
As the sun peeked above the clouds, Bertha
lay wide-eyed, a young boy’s form manipulating her mind. She had to
reach for her Bible and repeat the Twenty-Third Psalm. Her flesh was
weak and it had infected her mind. She ate, slept and drank a nineteen-year
old boy She was actually going on a date with him and maybe he didn’t
think of it that way, but. . .Maybe he’d put his arm around her. Maybe,
when no one was looking, he would sneak a kiss. Maybe he’d take his
large hand and trail it along her neck and down her chest, holding it
momentarily on her breast. Maybe he’d whisper “I love you” and she could
in turn free her own conscience and tell him how much she loved him
Friday finally tiptoed around. Bertha tried
everything to keep her mind off Rusty. She trimmed hedges, washed clothes
and polished floors. But the thought of herself on a date with Rusty
Brathwaite kept swimming back into her mind. He’d probably want to go
to that beach party, have a Red Stripe and eat some jerk chicken, he
and a bunch of kids, she thought. She would feel so awkward. It took
her two hours to pick out an outfit. She found a pair of blue jeans
that miraculously still fit and decided on a red t-shirt that she gathered
at the side and tied. It took forty-five minutes for her to get her
hair just right. She put it in curls. It took another half-hour for
her to apply the Kohl eye liner pencil, the blush and the lip gloss.
She did it at least three times, running to the bathhouse to wash her
face after each try, fearing that perhaps she had put on too much make-up.
She wanted to look good but didn’t want to look like a clown.
A million reggae beats spilled into the
air, not clashing, but settling together in one hypnotic melody. Voices
sweetened by rum floated by. Young boys sat outside their homes, talking
about this girl here and that girl there. She was sure that George had
made his way over to one of the bars, probably Mr. Winchester’s up the
street. At six-thirty, Rusty pulled up to her gate, beckoning her onto
his motorcycle. Bertha politely declined. In all her daydreams about
the evening, she never gave any thought to how they would be getting
to the beach. She had just assumed they would use the bus, but Rusty
“You know ‘ow the bus run, ‘specially at night.”
Bertha agreed but she just couldn’t imagine
herself on that bike. Aside from the fact that she had never been on
one and thought that mode of transportation precarious at best, she
couldn’t imagine how an old woman would look tacked onto the back, grasping
onto such a young boy. One thing for sure, the people would surely talk.
“You live you life worryin ’bout what people
say, Mrs. Rodgers, you ain’t nevah gonna be ‘appy. Now, is de bike or
notin’. We not gonna make it any other way.”
“But Rusty mon, you know ‘ow dem people
drive. ‘Specially them bus drivers, goin’ roun’ the curb like that.
I see a man once, ‘im try ta get roun’ a bus an’ ‘im get pin under it.
The bus drag ‘im two blocks before anybody realize.”
Rusty giggled, “Never been dragged under
a bus.” Then he extended his hand towards her. His eyes sparkled so
much, just like a little angel. She felt such a sense of safety with
him. Bertha just closed her eyes and allowed herself onto the back of
that bike. Rusty revved up the engine a few times, lifted his feet off
the ground and the bike leapt into motion. A small scream escaped Bertha’s
lips. Everything sped by so fast. She could see some of the women standing
outside their gates, doing a double take at what whizzed on by them.
She could feel the nipples of her breasts harden, just a bit, as her
chest relaxed against his back. Her hands were locked around his waist
and she could feel the hardness of his stomach. Her head was buried
inside his locks. It smelled like honey and reminded her of a field
she used to play in as a girl in Black River. It reminded her of azure
skies and warm breezes, long stalks of sugar cane and her sister’s lyrical
laughter. She was wild and free then and that’s what she thought life
as a woman would be like, a field of honey.
She had not felt that way since her childhood.
But now, this very moment, she could smell that field again, she could
see it. She wanted to press her thighs against this young boy’s, only
devoid of the clothes standing in her way. Her breath was coming in
spurts now. She wasn’t sure if it was because of the wind beating against
her face or because of the thoughts she was having, so she closed her
eyes and recalled the Twenty Third Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth
me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the
paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. . .
They sat on the white sand of the
beach, staring out into the sea. Bertha looked down shore from where
the faint sound of reggae and scent of roasted pork originated.
“If you want to go to the party, you can.
Looks like fun. I’ll be all right ‘ere.”
“There’ll be other parties.”
“When did you find out, Rusty. . .’bout
Eldridge?” Bertha asked, her eyes welling up with tears.
“When he first join the dance company, he
say he ‘ave somet’ing to tell me, but he never could. I suppose it cross
my mind though. He finally tell me just before he tell you an you ‘usband.”
“You love him any less ’cause of it?”
He shook his head. “It was weird at first,
but I love him more, ’cause I know he’d need me.”
“Maybe if it wasn’t all in the paper and
everybody didn’t know. Maybe if he wasn’t this big time dancer. Then,
maybe George would a ‘andle it better. But he have so much pride . .
. Everyone turn against my boy. The children, if you could ‘ear what
they said. And when he was at his lowest, George told him he was an
abomination. Told him that the best thing he could do, for the family,
was to kill himself. Told him he ‘ated him and wish he was never born.
If only George had told him he loved him. Then maybe he wouldn’t ‘ave
tied that sheet to that light fixture on the ceiling and put the other
end ’round his neck.”
The tears had begun to trickle down Bertha’s
cheeks when she felt Rusty gently pull her towards him. He held on to
her so tightly, she felt as secure as she had ever felt in her life.
Bertha felt that twinge in her heart again. She felt her stomach swell
up with I love you. She tried to flush the feelings out of her mind,
but with all her soul, she wanted this boy. She tried to recall the
Twenty Third Psalm but somewhere in the proceedings, all scruples were
lost and she felt her tongue gliding effortlessly into the warm unknown.
Sitting on the back of his bike again, she
felt a rebirth. She wanted Rusty to keep driving, to spend the rest
of his life navigating that bike, from Kingston to Mandeville, Catadupa
to Accompong, Milk River to Runaway Bay. But the motorcycle did finally
come to a halt in front of 6 Eight Street, and Bertha was forced again
to deal with the realities of her life. Rusty smiled at her before continuing
down the street. Bertha looked towards the heavens and decided that
the stars were smiling only at her. Eldridge’s birthday was the following
month and she would again be visiting his grave, cleaning his neglected
tombstone and mourning for him, alone. Maybe Rusty would go with her.
She decided she would ask him, the next time she saw him.
But a week drifted by and with it no sign
of Rusty. Bertha wondered if she had said something wrong. Perhaps she
should not have kissed him. She was old enough to be his mother. What
must he think. Still, each day, she hovered about her gate looking up
and down the street, hoping she’d see him involved in a game of football
or riding that bike of his so freely, but nothing. When she saw one
of his young friends walk by, she called him over:
“How you doing, Ms. Rodgers?”
“All right, Phillip,” Bertha said fidgeting
with her shirt tail. “I usually see you with Rusty Brathwaite.”
“Yeah, I know. I miss him mon.”
“You miss him. What you mean? He gone some place?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
Bertha’s heart beat wildly. Something must
have happened while he was on that motorcycle.
“Biggest news ’round these parts,” Phillip
continued. “He in Manchester.”
“England. Manchester team make him better
offer than the National Team. He leave day before yesterday.”
“When’s he coming back?”
“Could be never. Season already start so
not for a long time. He supposed to be a big deal over there.”
“But when did this all happen?”
“Practically overnight. Team scout was here
one day, two days later, Rusty gone.”
Bertha’s heart sank into the depths of her
stomach. Rusty was gone. Now what did she have to look forward to
Copyright © Carolita Blythe