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Both of we sitting down at the table, staring at the pop-out rubber slipper by the door, nose breathing silence and sighs filling the emptiness of the room. Torn curtains drawn, barely clinging to wire rods, but still hiding us from the scavengers flapping ’bout in the streets, hungering for us to step outside. Them waiting. To consume pain, to see grief splatter ’bout we body like jouvay morning paint. Them waiting. With a bucketful of insults, aimed at my heart.

Because a innocent chile dead and somebody gotta pay.

“Wuh I could do?” somebody ask. The voice sound like it getting squeeze out through a lil end of tube, like a ten-pound baby forcing it way out a half-inch hole.

The somebody had to be me. Nobody else in this house and she mouth ain open, it seal tight. Is a tomb. And you could see the whole place from the table; the floorboards yawning in the front house, the crack in the partition revealing two mattress on the bedroom floor. Wet newspaper for bathroom tile. Nothing else here ’cept the stickmen scratch into the wall and a moth hovering over a bag of split peas growing dust on the kitchen counter.

She scratch at she heart, like a dog digging up bone, but the dirt-filled nails struggle to grab hold of the skin tight across she bony chest.

“Lawd Jesus help me, it hurting, it hurting so bad.” She scream a mute wail, and bring she face down to she chest, as if she trying to swallow sheself.

“My heart can’t tek this pain. My Kemar, my chile.” This time she bellow like a cat in heat, and the scavengers hear the cry. Mumbles outside grow louder and soon nothing gine stop them from bursting into the house to feed on raw pain. Cameras click. Lights flash. Cell phones ping. She crumble onto the table, face just missing the blade of one of them rusty knife that does come from the Three-Dolla store.

The ones that does come in a pack of two.

Them cheap knife cut better than the brand-name knife back at the hotel. But they don’t last. Rust does form on the blade before you blink, and if you soak it in water too long the handle gine come loose.

But when the knife damage, you got a spare.

You always got a extra one.

“Come fuh mine,” say the voice that I don’t recognize. The hand I can’t feel rest itself against my starched cotton shirt, brush my gold name tag, and ease down on top the safety pin that does hide my cleavage from malicious eyes.

She stop sobbing like she run out of air. She pretend to be confuse but she eye betray she face, drawn to my breasts like a hungry baby. I undo the buttons, make a fist and massage the spot between my breasts, just like I do with a slab of pork before it go in the oven.

She lean forward and bite down on she crack-up lip in anticipation, and the fingers that are mine scoop up the knife from the table and squeeze it hard, as if drops of milk would leak from the handle.

She inhale sharp when the tip of the knife break my skin, or maybe that sound come from me? I can’t tell the difference between us anymore. We stare into each other eyeball while I carve into my chest, she ones full of tears, and my own so dry they feel like two raisins in the socket.

This knife sharp but I am tough. A stubborn piece of meat. I saw on my chest until there is a loud crack from a startled bone. She jump back in the chair, or maybe is me who move? The noise like gunshot at the start of a race and adrenaline soar through my veins, and I hack at my chest like I desperate to win at death. Like de Devil gine give me a molten medal to put round my neck. She is the proud parent in the stands, cheering me on, urging me to hold the speed ’til the finishing line.

There is a small squish when I pull out my heart, the same sound that slipper would make if Kemar could still jump in a pothole puddle on his way home from school. My hand slippery with warm blood, but the organ still breathes in my palm.

And I give she my heart, before it can break again.

 


 

My heart first break when milk refuse to come from my breast, and I had to watch him suck on dry nipple, both we face scrunch up in frustration. It burn me, feel like somebody rubbing sandpaper over my nipple, but through my tears I encourage he to keep going, bite it off if he had to, do whatever he need to get that milk flowing.

And he never stop. He never let go. He glare at me with angry eyes until blood mix with milk, and create a meal that full up he belly. Then he smile up at me, taunting, before he went sleep, even at that age, knowing I would peel off my skin for him, when he learn how to ask.

 


 

“Ma’am! Ma’am! Any comment about single mothers failing their sons?”

“You should never see no good!”

“I hope he get loss way in prison, not in no industrial school!”

“Ma’am! Have you spoken to the parents of the other killers?”

The face that is now a killer form in my mind, head no bigger than a grapefruit, covered in pus-filled acne from he first growth spurt. Smile full of baby teeth, and body too short for the long pants that I just buy for the new school term.

That’s when I notice the difference. He face fill my mind but sweet emptiness still in my chest.

I ain feel nothing at all.

The thick scarf hide the cameras, the sunlight, and the ever-growing bloodstain on my chest. My face to the pavement; I don’t need to look up. I take this path a thousand times, dropping him off to this very same house when the boss ask me to work overtime, on off day, on holiday, even Christmas.

I ain miss a step when I skip over the piece of galvanize covering the broken drain on the sidewalk. Even if I dint know the way, I just had to follow the growls of the dog next door. I give thanks for the something that tell me to feed the pot-starver at the side of the road, though we barely had enough for weself. The dog grow big on chicken bone, rice, and potato skin, and savage from fighting stray dog that does sometimes try to steal the scraps. None of the scavengers dare step a foot in my yard. Instead they gather ’round the property, out of range of the dog furious spittle.

I close the latch on my little finger in my haste to shut the gate, but I ain flinch. A centipede crawl onto my foot when I cut through the okra plants and pumpkin vine at the side of the house, but I let it stay, not even reacting when it curl ’round my toe. When I step into the kitchen and remove the scarf from my head, I am smiling.

Grandmother gone to carry food for him. The air fill with saltfish, old oil, and Pine-Sol. Pots still dripping wet in the dish rack and a plate of food on the counter cover over with a towel. The centipede now on my blouse, searching for a entrance to the hole in my chest. I ain want nothing inside me so I hit it away and crush it with my bare foot, then sweep up the mess from the sparkling congoleum floor.

I stare at my naked body in we bedroom mirror, my fingers now cold and wrinkle-up, as if I been soaking in a tub for two days. The flesh around the hole puckered up like it expecting a kiss, and jagged teeth-shaped bones sway around the wound. I slowly push my middle finger inside the void, then swirl it around in childish glee, enjoying the freedom of empty space.

Grandmother step inside the room with the plate and immediately drop the food, saltfish, rice, and peas bouncing all over the boards, his sneakers, and a kernel of corn make it onto his folded school uniforms in the clothes basket.

“Wuh you do?” Grandmother whisper, sliding down to the floor, the wood and her knees protesting. Grandmother clutch onto her cross pendant, crushing Jesus between her fingers, and press the trembling fist against her mouth.

I shrug and pull my nightgown over my head. It only take a few seconds for a circle of blood to seep into the material, bringing new life to the aged cloth. I slide under the sheets and settle in for my first night of sleep since Kemar dead.

Soon, Grandmother start to clear up the mess on the floor, picking up every grain of rice, even the ones that bounce under the bed, though the eighty-year-old body crying to straighten out. Before leaving, Grandmother say that somebody have to carry clothes for him at the school and ask which pants still fit, but I no longer have the heart to care.

 


 

I feel as fearless as a toddler, but in a teenager ever-changing body. Sometimes it seem like I is a ghost, haunting myself, watching my foreign shape go through the motions of living. At first Grandmother worried ’bout infection, and would follow me with Savlon and Mercurochrome, and though the flesh ’round the wound harden and turn as black as rotten eggplant, it never stop bleeding.

Every morning I wake up in blood-soaked nightgown, wrapped in crimson sheets, and Grandmother cleaning, scrubbing the bloodstains from her precious congoleum floor, eyes filled with questions too heavy for the tongue to ask.

I tell her don’t bother to clean up mess that gine reappear, but Grandmother stubborn, now spending most of her time washing, dunking sheets and clothes in a metal tub filled with cold, salted water for the stains and my sins, scrubbing spots with lemon juice until they fade, reminiscing about her good ol’ days of humming by the radio and finishing crochet chair backs.

But even with all the cleaning, Grandmother still make time to cook pelau, ground provisions, fry up dozens of bakes, fishcakes, and pumpkin fritters for him, her grandson who was just unlucky to get caught up in a tragic game.

Because boys will be boys.

Grandmother does catch bus to the industrial school, though most days them deny entry, and send her back home with a full container. I no longer complain about her food full of salt, lard, and fat, and devour the meals; my appetite ravenous now I could never get heart attack. But though I eat, I don’t taste anything at all. Is like swallowing heavy chunks of water.

“You coming?” Grandmother ask for the hundredth time, balancing the basket of food on her wrapped head, and frowning down at the permanent red stain on my shirt.

I never reply.

Grandmother tell me that I dead inside. That the purple wood got more heart than me.

 


 

One night I come home and catch he in the street, playing cricket with coconut husk under streetlight. He head hard like the rockstone he use as cricket ball; not even the Lord himself could break his will. He cricket bat and the cow-leather balls lock up in we bedroom cupboard until he do better in the schoolwork. God help me, even though I vex, I still proud of his ability to make do.

I pull the leather belt from my pants. Everybody else scatter when them see me marching up the road, stomping so hard my heel leaving crack in the pavement, but not he.

Why he ain run? Behind close door I cudda scream at he loud enough for the neighborhood to shake in my harmless wrath, and bang my hand on the counter, the board, anything but him. He know my threats don’t linger and does disappear faster than a burning match. But he there pose off, prop up on the husk like I is a wicketkeeper coming to bump fist for a good ball.

My belly start to hurt me ’cause I gine have to follow through. Everybody watching, peeping through the louvres and lace curtains to see what gine happen.

I gine never forget the shock on he face after the first blow. I let go a long poem of cuss, giving him enough time to run away, but he look up at me and I watch as the fire from the lash fly straight to he eye.

Maybe this is a blessing, I remember thinking as I bring down the belt over he back, foot, shoulder, and when he refuse to bend, his face. So many strangers in this world, waiting to hurt him, waiting to break him, so maybe is best I prepare him for the pain to come.

 


 

All night I stay awake, listening to the crickets and staring up at the coconut palms waving at me from the window, wondering if he learn how to fight from me.

 


 

He don’t ask why I finally decide to visit, or why I wearing three sweaters and a scarf though the sun scorching the pavement like vegetable oil in hot pan. He don’t notice that though I drowning in clothes, there ain a drop of sweat. If he did ask, I wudda tell he I always cold, so cold that my skin almost as pale as the tile in this visiting room.

If he did care, he wudda notice the veins in my face, crying out for blood. The hole in my chest is now so big I can push both fists into it, and the skin so dry I could sign my name on it with crayon.

I still bleed, but I am here, looking for answers that he does not care to give.

The school got less rules than home, he say, but when he eye meet mine he surprise to find them without hurt, without anger, without.

He telling me he ain want to come home ’cause he got he own bed and all he friends here too.

“Kemar not here,” I whisper, and he shrug and rip piece of Grandmother chicken from the bone.

He saying is not he fault Kemar can’t handle a few blows. If Kemar know he soft he shouldn’t have play salad. Who fault it is that the rock went between Kemar legs; he had to get beat, them’s the rules of the game. He cock he head to a side and stare at me with them angry eyes, and I don’t bother to tell he that he wrong.

He say he miss watching TV and ask for my phone. I tell him that would be breaking the rules but he laugh and reach cross the table and push it in he pocket. I shiver and wrap the wool sweater tighter ’round my shoulders. Sad air escape through the hole in my chest and further pry the ribs away from my flesh. I run a hand through my hair and one of the plaits leave with my fingers.

He still don’t notice a thing, but at least it don’t hurt.

 


 

She waiting at the back door, hair wild, and clutching onto a butter container, asking if she could come in. Thirty years we is neighbours and the steps never feel the weight of she shoe.

I wish we could go back to the days when she use to burse in the house, hollering “Inside!” for a moment’s notice. Even the dog growl cause it don’t recognise this she.

The scavengers already gathering in hope of a massacre, and I duck behind the door from the flashing lights.

The smell of spoil potato hit when she pass through the door, or maybe it come from me? I can no longer tell. She bent out of shape like arthritis fingers, like all she grief gather in she back. She struggling to make it to the kitchen table, but I don’t help she. I imagine my whole body would ignite in flames if just one finger touch she skin.

When she finally drop the container on the table it hit like a cement block. She remove the lid, and there is my heart in a gravy of blood, still pumping, still waiting.

“Is too much. I can’t bear it.” She can straighten up now that she not carrying the weight of my heart. She say she thought two hearts could better handle the pain, but instead she no longer has the space to heal.

I step toward the heart and it pace quicken, like it could sense that it close to home. I stare at the beating mass, full of memories, and realise somebody would have to cut it up in bite-size pieces and force it down my throat.

That heart would serve better as dog food.

But the container too heavy for me to lift. I grunt as my fingers slip on the plastic, but it don’t move a inch, like it nail onto the table. So I place my hands around the heart and squeeze with all my strength, ignoring the gurgling sounds of death, ignoring the urge to plunge it back into the hole in my chest.

She let out a choked cry, like my hands squeezing she heart and not my own, and try to wrestle it away, trying to protect mine from me. She yank it from the container and blood splash all over Grandmother table. I ain no match for she strength, but I still try to slap it to the ground so I can jump on it ’til it burse.

In a rage, I throw anything I can get my hands on, fork, broom, pot, but she duck every object, protecting my heart with she body.

“I gine keep it! I gine keep it ’til you want it!” she scream, tears streaming from she eye as she take the force of a mug against she back, refusing to let go of my heart. The scavengers outside squawking, eager to see the show, or at least capture the remains. The dog going mad, ramming itself into the door.

The back door creak open, and I pause, caught holding a cast iron pan in the air. The dog whimper and run to the safety of the old chicken coop. Grandmother look ’round the kitchen; the broken dish and glass, upside-down chairs, and bloody footprints all over the congoleum.

She hobble out the door, still clutching onto my heavy heart, though the weight pull she closer and closer to the ground. Grandmother silhouette proud and upright in the chorus of lights and I beg her to shut the door, but Grandmother swing it open to the fullest, exposing our dirty laundry for everyone to see.

 


 

“Is it true that you have no heart, Ma’am?”

“How she got the woman carrying all she load?”

“That’s where the son mussie get it from. The apple don’t fall far from the tree.”

“She is a heartless woman.”

 


 

He look so innocent in he white dress shirt and long gray pants. Maybe them got another future where I looking at he with pride for his first day in fourth form, and not his first day in high court.

The security guard say I can’t wear my hat inside, but when them see my head looking like a chess board, the remaining clumps of hair shiny with coconut oil, them say they gine make an exception.

Them ain say nothing when them search my handbag and find a two-litre bottle of water, even though no food allowed. I thankful them ain confiscate it ’cause I lighter than a feather now, and I need something heavy on my shoulder to keep me from floating ’way.

The scavengers all around but they not permitted to swarm my carcass. I know them wishing they could snap a photo of me, face now so bony that sunglasses no longer fit, and covered head to toe in black cloth so the bloodstain could pass for sweat. Instead, they cut into their notepads, the sounds of pen on paper filling the air with exaggerated truths to share on tomorrow front page.

He shouldn’t have been able to see me, but he did anyway, his gaze dodging the seething and crying relatives and finding mine. I think he trying to tell the truth with his eyes so the words don’t pass through his lips. The large room seem to swallow his tiny frame, and though I look away, the fear in those same angry eyes enter through the space in my chest and shatter everything that left, even my bones. I melt into the bench, afraid for when I have to get up, because part of me will forever be off-balance.

 


 

“The court ain give just punishment but God gine strike he down.”

“He ain even shame, look how he smiling. He evil fuh true.”

“Parents should pay the price for them children!”

“Spare the rod, spoil the child!”

 


 

There ain no point eating; I ain got no more taste. There ain no reason to speak; I ain got nothing important to say. There ain no point thinking; the world ain got no meaning. I depend on fleeting muscle memory to get through the days. Put foot on floor. Hold brush against teeth. Call in sick. Stare at space. Rest head on pillow. Try not to wake up.

Grandmother knees black and hands rub raw, but still on all fours, scrubbing the congoleum, trying to ignore the growing tower of dirty sheets in the corner. Then Grandmother just went still, as if someone press pause on the world.

“I ain got the heart for this nuh more,” Grandmother whisper, slamming the scrubbing brush into the ground. “I ain got the heart for this nuh more.”

Grandmother slowly pull herself to her feet and grab a bread knife off the counter. Is only when Grandmother lift the knife toward her heart that I leap from the chair. I ain move so fast in weeks. That dull blade wudda tickle my chest but it would tear through her paper-thin wrinkle-up skin. I reach before Grandmother plunge the knife down and I bury my face in her chest, my head protecting her heart.

“Tek mine! Tek mine!” Grandmother scream, over and over again, twisting her body in every direction, trying to get me off, but I wrap my arms around her back. The knife clatter onto the congoleum and me and Grandmother cling onto each other, my blood seeping into her dress, her tears caressing my scalp. We stay in that position, rocking to the music of her heartbeat, and me wishing that I had the heart to ease her pain.

 


 

Is one of them rare days I getting home when light still in the sky. Kitchen work start before cricket wake up and finish after sandfly gone bed. It strange to see people living; couple exercising in the road, men on tiny bicycles hailing friends by ringing bell, rastaman cutting grass for lil buck, all reminders that the gap still alive even when I dead tired.

I turn the corner and hear children laughing in the park, though nothing but broken swing and overgrown weeds to play with. I recognize his voice, and can’t help but think back to the last time I catch he playing with friends when he suppose to be inside doing homework. History not gine repeat itself with me.

I can’t pass without them seeing so I hide, hoping he would disappear with the fading sun. But outside still bright enough to bare the truth for no one but me to see.

I watch when that rock fly between Kemar foot, his short cut-off jeans and knee already scruffy with grass. I see when he and three other boys kick Kemar all over he body. Kemar curl up like millipede, head to chest and hands protecting he face, and maybe I cudda tell them to stop but is no real harm.

Just boys being boys.

I see when everybody decide enough blows share. All the boys turn away, ready to play another round and find another loser to attack. Kemar start to get up, with the now pop-out rubber slipper in hand.

Him, my son, turn ’round with them angry eyes, and none of the other boys ain see when he give Kemar one last kick, and Kemar head twist in a way no head should ever twist.

I pin on my gold name tag as I hurry down the gap, back to the hotel to volunteer for double shift, knowing Kemar ain gine ever walk in that rubber slipper again.

 


 

She say no mourning colours, but is no difference to me; colour long gone from my world. The graveyard is mounds of gray and the sea of umbrellas look like ripples in the ocean.

The boiling sun don’t warm my icy skin but the scavengers don’t last long in the heat. The wave of people filter down to a trickle, then to nothing but footsteps in the soil. The scavengers all gone now that the news dead and bury.

I make my way through the graveyard, fighting the urge to rest and curl up between brek-up crosses and cracked tombstones. Every so often, I look back to make sure there ain no trail of limbs behind me. Though I feel no pain, every step is a harsh reminder that the body never forgets.

She is alone at the grave, staring at the flower-covered mound, and body bent so low I swear there is a invisible rope to keep she from falling.

I wonder if I should join Kemar in the earth, but I know that I would not die. I would spend years watching his body decay and sharpening my fingernails on rocks. The force of my long, hard sigh is enough to make me unstable, and I sink onto the ground.

She turn ’round with a black cloud in she hand. I squint and the cloud turn into a large pot, the one that Grandmother would use to cook her rice and peas for us on Christmas Eve.

As she come closer, scent return to the air. The sharp tang of fresh meat, begging to be frozen or cooked. I can’t believe she keep my heart in she hand all this time, even now, when I could understand if she put it aside.

I tilt my face to the clouds as she unbutton my blouse, and reveal a hole so large that it almost swallow my neck. She need both hand to lift the heart from the pot; it three times the size, still beating, looking like it could explode any minute.

We both release a sigh of relief when she gently lay my heart back inside me. The blood burn as it race through my veins and my chest fold into my heart like it hugging a long-lost friend, or the prodigal son who finally return home.

I brace myself for the tide of pain, but the emotion not ready to crash against my shore. She help me sit up, and I press my hand against my heart, holding it in place, ’til Grandmother can crochet the flesh closed. With tight knots so nothing can escape. Though I am light-headed and the weight inside seem like it would drag me underground, I decide to carry the burden alone.

I sit with she and Kemar, in blessed isolation, watching as the gray roses turn red and listening to the graveyard whisper assurances through the trees.



Shakirah Bourne is a Barbadian author and filmmaker. Her stories have been featured in several literary journals, and she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2019. Her self-published collection of short fiction, In Time of Need, won the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Literary Fiction, and her middle grade fantasy, Josephine Against the Sea, was published by Scholastic in 2021. www.shakirahbourne.com/ @shakirahwrites
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