Nancy was already at the fishing village by the time the sun stretched her hands across the sky. A row of small, colorful boats sat like sentinels along the waterfront. She watched the soft lapping of the sea send kiss after kiss to the shore. For a moment, she envied this lovers’ dance. Not a word from Rudy Sweets since he left to do the job in Cayman three months ago and Nancy’s dam was beginning to crack.
Her children poked through the sand with sticks at the foot of an almond tree. Four-year old Sunshine pulled her three year-old brother King by the hem of his shirt, in spite of his protesting. King kept his thumb firmly planted in his face. Nancy looked at them and saw only Rudy—his bright round eyes on Sunshine, and his full coco lips on King. Nancy’s face was stamped on her four older children in different ways, but these two belonged entirely to Rudy Sweets.
“Mi will send fi you soon,” Rudy had said. “Nuh worry yourself.”
Nancy sucked her teeth and slipped her hand into her dress pocket. She rubbed her fingers along the top of her small flask of rum until the sound of Rudy’s voice receded to the back of her mind. Then she busied herself with packing the fish she got from her usual fisherman into her basket. She hoisted the load onto her head, ready to set out down the long harbor road to market just like she always did, and just like her mother used to do.
The hardscrabble teen who birthed Nancy had already left this world. Aunt Dee, a distant cousin, took Nancy in. Aunt Dee didn’t offer so much caring as she did a blueprint for survival in the ghetto, which Nancy now understood to be a merciful thing to bestow on a girl child with more curves than material means. “Wha gone bad a morning can’t come back good ah evening,” Aunt Dee used to tell her whenever Nancy asked about her mother. “You just do what I tell you. Forget ‘bout all that.”
Hard life had made Nancy’s face a mask that revealed neither elation nor disgust. “Mi dey yah,” she would often reply when asked howdy do. She just was. She wore the same expression as other Jamaican women in those turn-of-the-century sepia postcards destined for English travelers seeking a tame adventure amongst civilized natives. Under the photos of barefoot women in tattered Victorian dresses were written phrases like “Negro women going to market.” These barefoot women always had fruit-laden baskets on their heads.
Nancy muttered to herself as Sunshine and King scurried behind her down the road. “Bwoy, life salt, eeh?”
“What you mean, mummie?” asked Sunshine.
“Never you mind. Just walk up.”
Nancy picked up her pace, as if to walk the memories into the ground, but they just kept rising to the front of her mind. Rudy, ten years her junior, had uncoiled the knot where her heart should have been. He wanted her in total—a feeling she had never known, not even with her own mother. People always told her she was ugly, and yet she was his ‘princess.’ He kissed the stretch marks that were widened by giving birth every two years. He caressed the keloid gash that Blakka, the two older children’s father, had left for spite between her sagging breasts, just before he left for good. Rudy didn’t cringe at the remnants of childhood beatings that dotted Nancy’s back; they looked as if hot oil were flung like holy water during a hard-life sermon. He drank her in like a quenching glass of water in the hot sun and she melted a little more each time he entered her. This rasta with the quiet smile made her feel for the first time that she could dream about something called the future. And unlike the other men, who always said they wanted the children, she felt Rudy Sweets actually meant it.
But now this door was swung wide open and Nancy was left adrift in an unfamiliar place, slowly suffocating in his absence.
“Mummie. . . mummie . . . ” Sunshine said as she tugged at her mother’s skirt. “Mi waan sweetie.”
Nancy slapped Sunshine’s hand away. The child stumbled back as Nancy walked ahead. Sunshine began to chew on the frayed collar of her dress, which was already too small for her.
As they approached the market, women were buzzing about. The market was a living thing. Its flesh was mounds of mangoes, sweet sop, naseberry, bananas. The steady calls of the higglers, its rapid heart. And those women with heads tied with colorful scarves, and legs splayed wide with skirts cascading between like waterfalls, were its bones.
“Is what dis now, mi Lawd?” Nancy let her basket down with a thud.
Big fat Eunice had arrived earlier and already parked her things in the spot near the entrance where Nancy usually set up. Eunice sucked the last bit of juice out of an orange and tossed the rind behind her. It bounced off of her teenage son, Bully, who tried his best to pretend that he was asleep, his face hidden under a cap. Eunice looked directly at Nancy.
“You know dyam well.” Nancy’s raspy voice was like a big stone being pushed across the pavement.
Eunice hoisted her large frame to balance on fat ankles and walked over to where Nancy stood. She folded her arms. There were inches between them.
“So, tell mi nuh?”
Nancy turned her head and spat. She wiped her brow with a kerchief and then looked Eunice up and down as if pouring gasoline over kindling.
“Listen me. Just move yuh big, dutty self from here, gyal!”
“You can move me? Please. Gweh from here, you eediot gyal! Stink ah fish. Heh heh! No wonder Sweets run lef you.”
Eunice continued to bellow. The women in the nearby stalls chuckled to themselves as they adjusted and arranged their merchandise, careful not to look directly at Nancy or Eunice.
“And what you think you know about my man, gyal?
“Tell me something Nancy. Is how much pickney you have now? Six? Seven? And ah you alone ah mind them?” Eunice shook her head. “Hm. Sorry fi you, mi dear. Mi sure no man nah go want you and all di pickney-dem, and dat tired body ah yours.”
Nancy leaned back to let out a long sigh. “Mi know you long time, you know? You just vex cause Sweets never want you. All the try you try. Watch dis, mi nuh inna dis botheration so early inna di morning. Just move from here and mind yu damn business.” Nancy walked right up to Eunice’s stall and pushed several plantains off the table. Yvette, who sold peppers a few spots down, motioned for Sunshine and King to come to her.
“Your business, Nancy? Everybody know your business. And them know Sweets have a woman inna Cayman. Woman and pickney. And him not coming back. You stay dey ah wait, you fool.”
“A lie! You too bad-mind and wicked.”
“Curse me then, but is di truth. Mi cousin in Cayman tell me.”
Eunice flung a folded air mail envelope toward Nancy, which landed at her feet. Nancy picked up the envelope and opened it slowly. Inside were three photos showing small groups of people by a river. She didn’t see Sweets until the third picture, where he stood smiling, one arm around a man on his left and the other around a petite Indian woman on his right.
“And, anyway, look pon you,” said Eunice. “You think that young, young man woulda really settle down with a ugly likke yabba mout fish vendor like you?” She let out a cackle. “Him did just ah look place fi stay till him ready fi migrate. You soon find him deh America. You too fool, Nancy! Fool from yu born. Ah bet ah so yu madda did fool too.”
Eunice turned her back to pick up the plantains and put them back on the table. Something snapped in Nancy and the storm inside her overwhelmed her senses. She spotted a broken beer bottle near the door and the only thing she wanted to do was reach down and grab it.
Eunice continued, “Hope you learn your lesson, Nancy. Di next time yu wutless son Lenny and him fren-dem try beat up my son, I going do more dan push out outta dis market; I go send yu to di cemetery!”
Bully looked up sheepishly from behind the table to reveal a black eye and busted lip. Nancy’s eldest son Lenny was more man than child at this point, and just like her, he grew up in spite of himself, like a weed pushing through concrete. She couldn’t control him. She didn’t try.
Nancy walked slowly over to Eunice with the bottle in hand, hovering with the stillness of a cobra. In an instant, she sprung onto the table, lunging at Eunice, who wobbled back and almost fell over. Nancy had merely nicked her neck with the broken bottle, but she did draw blood. Eunice’s cinnamon brown face flushed red as she held her neck. Nancy stepped forward and raised her hand, hoping to sink the jagged glass into Eunice’s jugular. But just then, Bully darted out from around the table and shoved a 45 into Nancy’s waist. Nancy reeled back, tripping over her basket and falling flat onto her back. She rolled over onto her knees and searched the ground for the bottle. It had rolled under a table, out of her reach.
“Not so bad now, eeh?” Eunice chuckled.
Nancy stood up and grabbed her basket. Two little fish fell out. She left them there and stomped to the edge of the market, near the roadside, where she leaned against an electric post to settle the anger that shook her entire body. She was a bull, scraping at the ground, ready to charge. She played the scenario over again in her head and thought about ending Eunice. Nancy was usually numb enough to see this type of thing all the way through to the end, until Sweets came into her life. When the storms raged inside her, she’d hear his words in her mind. “Be cool, sugar. Don’t quarrel.” And then he would kiss her on her nose, his rough beard would tickle her lips. She flowed with the stream of these memories only because they calmed her. But she also felt confused. Was Eunice telling the truth? A picture was just a picture. It didn’t prove anything. But, he looked so happy. Why hadn’t he written? She had to know for herself.
Nancy sat on the curb for so long, turning and turning Eunice’s words in her head, that she didn’t even notice King and Sunshine lingering just behind her. She reached for her rum and swallowed a big gulp. The burning down her throat was better that the burning on top of her head. As the sun moved across the sky, Nancy sat motionless in the heat. A drum pounded between her ears and she sipped and sipped from the flask. Each time it beat louder, she muted all feeling with a burning, hard swallow.
School children and office workers walked past her and looked with scorn as if she had made her bed in the road. She didn’t cover the fish from the sun and the flies began to descend on the pungent load.
In that very moment, she knew she had nothing left.
Rudy Sweets was gone. And Aunt Dee was no longer in this world to tell her, “Gyal, you fool fool.” Children were always hungry and full of want, want, want. The big ones brought other worries and more babies. Nancy closed her eyes tight and let the sun beat her lids. She had lived too many years of hard life for tears to come. There was only the pounding in her head, like the clock tower in the town chiming out the passing years of her life. Too many children, too little money, too many problems. The perpetual motion machine that kept her standing still was all that she knew. And she wanted to know that feeling of living again, that feeling that Rudy Sweets unlocked.
Nancy sat up straight. She had long stopped questioning Rudy’s love and just surrendered to it. But now, he was gone and Aunt Dee was gone. And as much as she hated Eunice, she could only wonder if the photo had more stories to tell. Nancy needed to know for sure. She decided right then she would go to Cayman and find Rudy Sweets.
King and Sunshine sat against the wall near their mother. King nodded off to sleep, sucking this thumb, as he leaned on his sister’s shoulder. Nancy handed Sunshine a bag of peanuts that the peanut man had left quietly next to her as she sat with her head buried in her palms. The little girl ate rapidly. Nancy counted the little money she had. She pushed the cash into her bra and stood up. Looked down at Sunshine. All she could see was Rudy’s face, and a future of more wants and needs that she was tired of hustling to supply. It was enough.
“Sit right here, okay?” Sunshine nodded and shoved a handful of peanuts into her mouth.
Nancy stepped off the curb as if she were walking through a door that led into a warm, gentle ocean. She left everything she had been hauling in that burning room behind her, including her children. There would be more children. More rum. And other trap doors. But Nancy never looked back.
Keisha-Gaye Anderson is a Jamaican-born poet, author, and visual artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Gathering the Waters (Jamii 2014) is her debut poetry collection. Keisha's poetry, fiction, and essays have been widely published in national literary journals, magazines, and anthologies that include Small Axe Salon, Interviewing the Caribbean, Renaissance Noire, The Killens Review of Arts and Letters, Mosaic Literary Magazine, African Voices Magazine, Streetnotes: Cross Cultural Poetics, Caribbean in Transit Arts Journal, The Mom Egg Review, and others. Her second poetry book, Everything Is Necessary, is forthcoming from Willow Books in 2019. Keisha is also received the received the Editors’ Choice recognition for the Numinous Orisons, Luminous Origin Literary Award for Poetry (Agape Editions) for her poetry collection A Spell for Living. The book will be published in 2019 as a full-length digital experience of poetry, Keisha's original art, and music, through the Morning House ebook series. Keisha is a past participant of the VONA Voices and Callaloo writing workshops, and was short-listed for the Small Axe Literary Competition. She is a graduate of the Syracuse University Newhouse School and holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from The City College, CUNY. Most recently, she was selected as a 2018 Artist-in-Residence at the Brooklyn Public Library. Learn more about Keisha at www.keishagaye.ink and follow her on Facebook (facebook.com/keishagayeanderson), Instagram (@keishagayeanderson), and Twitter (@keishagaye1).