BY BEV JAFEK
This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
WHEN ANNA and Lorry woke up, it seemed that they shared a profound secret. They were the travellers that would see all of Jamaica, not their friends who were satisfied with sand and sea. “Into the heart of darkness?” Anna asked.
“Absolutely, but there must be a decent quantity of that rum.”
“And, we know there will be.”
“To the unknown,” Lorry said, suddenly serious. They both looked out the huge window with jungle beckoning beyond. But farewell to the fair jungle, Lorry thought. I will miss you.
You’re the real thing here, Anna thought. You were here first. Are we the rest your minions, confusing and fighting one another?
At breakfast, they broke the news to their companions. “Do I have this straight,” said Rory. “You’re giving up our tropical paradise and going to the big dirty city with not a spot of green, but filled to the top with human misery?”
“It may well turn out that way,” Anna said, “but we’ll see how they live without their paradise. Who knows? It might have things in common with Manhattan.”
“Manhattan is money, power, and piss on the pavement. Period. It’s not Manhattan. Kingston will be hot as hell with no place to swim.”
“I praise your desire for knowledge at all costs and respectfully decline like the proud hedonist I have always been. Actually, I don’t know whether to praise or curse you. Remember, you won’t have me around for comic relief or a convenient punching bag. This divorce is final, at least until you return for the plane back.”
“We are well aware that you won’t be there with us,” Lorry said, and thought, Amen to that.
Softies not wanted or needed, Anna thought.
“Why do I have the strange feeling that this is happening because they wear engineer’s boots with switchblades in them and we wear sneakers?”
“Actually what are we going to do?” Jan asked.
“The sensible thing,” Rory said. “More lovely Negril, then back for a few days of lovely Montego Bay, what any sane person would do. The best thing I can call our friends is intellectuals, and I won’t say the thousand worse things they might be called. Are you going to have a last swim since you probably can’t in Kingston?”
“No, not even that,” Anna said. “We’ve got to find out about trains and tickets.”
“I can just imagine this train: straight through the jungle with leaves in your face and stopping every two minutes to get the goats off the tracks.”
“It’s not that long a trip and I want them to stop for goats.”
“Goat power! That’s another reason this is happening.”
“Rory, really! You’ve just got to shut up and let them do it,” Jan said.
“I am not accustomed to being the voice of reason. Perhaps I have been uncouth.”
“Nothing we didn’t expect,” said Lorry firmly, indicating that departure was imminent.
“How many goats can impoverished Jamaicans have in the jungle, anyway?” Anna said.
They found the train station and tickets as easily as anything else in the tropics: the train was even leaving in roughly an hour. Lorry read her issue of The Journal of Social Psychology and Anna read Jan’s travel guide. “How did you get that away from her?” Lorry asked.
“She lent it to me out of concern for our possible danger. Of course, we’ll be back safe and sound to return it.” But, while they waited a distinct tension came over them, doubts as to whether they would be coming back safely, followed by efforts to question their fear. It was only relieved by the presence of the train. When it arrived, they were surprised to find it virtually unenclosed like a trolley car, and the jungle nearly plunged through the sides. They immediately laughed, which dispelled the tension.
They got on with Anna in the seat closest to the jungle and began to become accustomed to its rhythmic slapping of the sides of the train. “This rhythm is unique,” Anna said. Stops were frequent, as they expected. At the first, Anna looked out the side of the train to an area where four giant chartreuse leaves seemed to ooze in the heat, yet had a huge conical pink blossom of many petals shooting out of its centre It was dripping wet. We’re still close to the water, Anna thought. At the root of the plant, she spotted a brilliantly chartreuse frog with a flat head and eyes but a large pendant crimson gullet in a shape suggesting the presence of a single coin within. How lovely, she thought. Life burgeons wherever you look, and the intolerable heat and moisture are its source.
The train started moving again and they lost all self-awareness, except the sense of the heat and that they were intimately a part of the jungle. At the next stop, wet leaves from the jungle entered the sides of the train and left a black pool of water. Anna looked out at a leafy enclosure of a house some distance away that was surprisingly luxurious, its wood beautifully finished like that of the tropical motel where they stayed in Negril. Anna could see directly into the open living room window. Inside, a tall, muscular black man was sitting in his underwear in an immense, regal chair. He grinned at her in the broadest, white-toothed smile of satisfaction. Have I ever seen anyone so pleased with himself, she wondered. He was covered, saturated in gold: gold rings on every finger, several gold necklaces and chains, a big gold watch, gold bracelets, and a gold-tipped walking stick in his hand. He even had two gold teeth. Ganja smoke poured out of his window and he continued grinning broadly at her. “It’s all true,” he said in a deep voice that seemed to resonate for several moments in the torrid air.
Lorry got a hit of the ganja and said, “What’s going on out there? A party?”
“No, it’s a one-man celebration of a big, happy drug lord in his jungle estate, I think. I can hardly believe my eyes.”
The train suddenly moved on again. “Paradise?” Lorry asked.
“All the way down to its sweaty underwear.”
“You have two goats to thank for that vision.”
“I do thank them. I’ll never forget that sight.” The train continued starting and stopping, with a fabulous new scene at every stop. Mainly, Anna saw a plethora of lakes and waterfalls surrounded by green hills hardly bigger than mounds. They had the effect of miniatures, theatrical scenes that could not be more natural. She discovered in the guidebook that the island’s name, Xamaica, came from a Taino Indian word for land full of springs, for each green valley seemed to have its spring and every crag was joined to a waterfall.
She again was lulled by the repetitive rhythm of the train meeting the resistance of the jungle and began to doze. Suddenly she was directly beside a waterfall with a bird and a frog that were lapis lazuli, as though the hue were an intensification of the water’s colour. The frog’s belly and underarms were shining turquoise and some memory identified it as poisonous. Everything seemed to be in communion with her and all of its elements. There was a breath-taking plant of monstrous leaves, one of which held a spider with thick hairy legs of a deep dark green but for its bright orange back. The scene seemed to rock and then explode with watery heat, and she realized that the train was moving again. She looked back immediately to see whether the scene was real or a dream and saw that it was indeed real, except for her distance from it. She had been in a hypnogogic state, seeing what was there with dream vividness, though hardly more vivid than the reality. She smiled at these modes of perception colliding, yet wasn’t that what travel was for, she thought. It was to upend reality and see it in a new way that can’t fail to be striking. The train trip was enlightening, not ridiculous, in spite of its erratic pace.
The train continued in what seemed to be its longest period of perpetual motion and Anna read her guidebook. Suddenly it stopped for 20 minutes, and Anna was astonished to see a small village with a house in which a family of Jews was engaged in prayers guided by a leader who swayed from side to side while chanting in an antiphonal pattern. Through the living room window, she could see a room in the rear with a table full of braided loaves covered by a white cloth. Candles were flickering in both rooms and the smell of paraffin wandered out. Wine was being drunk by the group from an ornamental cup and some kind of sandwiches lay before them. The house behind, on the other hand, seemed to be the property of a Chinese family who were outside talking to a Middle Eastern couple who owned the house across the dirt road.
“What’s it now?” asked Lorry.
“There are Jews and Chinese people and possibly Arabs living here. Apparently, it’s more ethnically diverse than I thought.”
“I’m envious of your ‘window seat.’ I should have taken it.”
“Except I end up with a big wet kiss from a plant or tree every so often; and in case you haven’t noticed, the front of my shirt is dripping wet.”
“That is a considerable disadvantage.” Anna looked out again and the village was gone. In another half hour, they began to see the first signs of the Kingston metropolitan area. Shanties with zinc roofs and piles of burning rubbish as well as dogs barking became the norm rather than jungle. Anna saw many house doors with bullet holes. The people were instantly very different from any Jamaicans they had previously seen. The women and children looked sulky and hostile, hardened like their men. They sat or stood watching rather than acting. That’s the look of poverty mixed with a history of slavery, Anna thought.
“We’re here,” said Lorry. “Now the danger begins.” Anna began to feel agitated. Now it’s here, she thought again and again. At that moment, a glowing tangerine coloured dove with brilliant pink highlights on its feathers swooped past Anna outside the train.
“Did you see that bird?” she asked, but Lorry was staring straight ahead. Anna found the sight of the bird reassuringly beautiful, like a sacred message at an uncomfortable moment. It’s still here, the world was saying, what you found before and loved. Anna relaxed, also observing that there are no sacred messages.
Finally, passive and tired out by the heat, they arrived at the train station. It was well kept up but they were nervous about the environment outside. “Now we have the urban jungle to navigate,” Lorry said. “Do you want to have dinner?”
“Sure. As you’ve observed, they don’t kill paying customers,” Anna said, and Lorry smiled in her perpetual amusement, not noticing the fear by which Anna was possessed. “Where should we find a hotel? Should we just walk around?”
“Not a good idea here, probably. We can make use of the universal directory to everywhere,” Lorry said.
“What on earth is that?”
“Ask a cab driver to take us to a hotel. We go to the one he picks, then we walk around. There must be a City Centre that’s a commercial hub. We continue to be safe as valued customers.”
“What if it’s a hub of crime, too?” Anna said.
“We ask for a medium-priced hotel.”
Just let me see it clearly, Anna thought. That’s all I ever ask of this strange place we call our lives. Eventually, they were deposited in front of a reasonable looking hotel, completely rectangular, with no hint of beauty. They paused with their luggage, paid the driver, and went in. A very dark black man stood behind the registration desk, and they absorbed his presence, which was reassuring, as well as an odd quality of the light that was not. There were very few furnishings in the entrance, and it was sparsely lighted at the middle of walls rather than overhead, creating shadows with the appearance of light at 3:00 am. Hour of the wolf, Anna thought.
The man at the reception desk had a restrained, trustworthy face with a small, carefully shaved mustache and goatee as well as good looks and suspicion combined in a firm mouth. “I’m sorry,” he said without dialect. “No white people are allowed to stay in this hotel. I’ll get in trouble with my bosses if I let you stay here. They’ll recognize the names of white people.” The two women looked at one another in sheer amazement. The theory of valued customers that had reassured them now evaporated.
“It’s awfully late . . .” Lorry began uncertainly. “I doubt anyone would see us in the halls. That, and we don’t know quite what to do. We’d have to start over with another cab driver. Can’t you bend the rules once? We’ll pay immediately.”
The man looked down to his crossed arms for a minute or two, which seemed like an hour to the women. Still, he looked sympathetic and as though he was trying to find a solution for them. The world was looking stranger than anything they had seen in the jungle, but fatigue and heat were sharpening their fear. The room was now an end point to their exhaustion and a necessity. They waited, breathing heavily.
“O.K.,” he said finally. “I’ll give you a room and key, but you can’t register. I’m going to put Jamaican black names on the register. We do have rooms.” At this point, the man nearly looked bereaved. It’s hellishly odd but I’m relieved, Anna thought. Lorry gave her an open-mouthed look of relief.
“That should do it,” Lorry said and paid for the room. Carrying their luggage to the room, they found the hallways dark with flickering lights and the smell of dust. It’s 3:00 am again, Anna observed, though it was barely after 10:00 pm.
The room was minimally furnished but clean and, looking out the window, Anna saw nothing but a brick wall. With one dangling light bulb and a small lamp, the shadows again danced slowly to 3:00 am. “I know it’s weird,” Lorry said, “but the heat and fatigue have done me in. I’m not even hungry. It doesn’t seem safe. There’s no paper record of our being here, which is most suspicious. We just “disappear” after using a cab. But, it’s O.K. for me because it’s not the street.”
“I wonder what a budget hotel would be,” Anna asked.
“The street under a bridge, apparently,” Lorry said, her look of amusement sharpened by what now looked like suffering.
Anna immediately hugged Lorry and said, “I know how weird it is, the least being it’s perpetual look of 3:00 am, the twilight zone; but there’s a lock in front of anyone who wants to get in and I’m putting a chair beneath the doorknob.”
“Ah, well-l-l-l . . . we chose this, didn’t we?”
“Damn it, yes.” They laughed, breaking the tension. “Let’s just get cleaned up and sleep. I’m not hungry, either.”
When they were lying together in bed with only their underpants on, there was a knock on the door. Their bodies instantly tensed. “I’ll do it,” Anna said. She approached the door slowly, removed the chair under the doorknob, and opened the door with only her head peering around it.
The reception clerk stood in front of her with a peeled mango. “For you ladies with our good wishes,” he said kindly.
“Oh . . . ah . . . thank you,” Anna said with an automatic smile toward the man’s evident guilt over the situation. “Thanks and good night,” she added, taking the fruit into the room, closing the door, and putting the chair back under the doorknob. She put the mango on a chest of drawers. “I suppose they feel guilty about almost kicking us out, that and the fact that we’re women. They’d never bring a peace offering to white men.”
“Are you going to eat it?” Lorry asked with her smile creasing a tense face.
“Not a chance in hell,” Anna said.
“That’s my smart girl,” Lorry said and they both laughed. “Take a sniff of it.”
Anna put it up to her nose and sniffed, said, “Maybe a chemical smell, not sure, but drowned out by the fruity smell. There is . . . something that might be drops of liquid in a few places, I can see. I’m not sure. At least it doesn’t smell like ‘bitter almond,’ or we’d be off in Agatha Christie land.”
“We will not touch that smoking bomb,” Lorry said with just a creased line of her smile.
Anna got back into bed. “A bomb possibly disguised as a peace offering, and we don’t know the difference. What do they get from us unconscious, maybe, or dying or dead?”
“We’re not good candidates for sex slaves, or at least I can’t imagine it. But, we’re young bodies full of healthy organs that can be harvested and sold for high prices on a black market.”
“Oh, lord!” Anna said. “They’d need experience and the right equipment for that. The man downstairs doesn’t look like a killer to me.”
“O.K., so eat the mango, brave woman.”
“The hell I will! I’m not going near that thing.” They laughed again and dispelled tension, then they held one another but had as little desire for sex as for food. Guts won’t work right until we feel safe again, Anna thought, and safety seemed infinitely distant. “Do you have your switchblade handy,” she asked.
“In my hand.”
Anna turned over and closed her eyes. Within five minutes, she realized that she would never be able to sleep in this hotel. Lorry seemed to have effortlessly dropped off to sleep. Anna sat up with the pillow against her back and looked around the room. Her eyes were already accustomed to the dark, giving the room a black glow like obsidian. She was so exhausted that the dark was immediately filled with hallucinated life: shadowy spiders hanging down in huge webs, patterns suddenly appearing all over the walls. This is visual fatigue, she thought, fatigue of any kind. The heat was as cloying as a strangler. The patterns on the black walls showed geometric patterns, then shapes that might decorate a vase or bedspread, patterns that manifested themselves then quickly became other patterns. Oh god, there’s a whole night of this coming, Anna thought.
She decided to open the blinds and let the moonlight and street lamp light in. At least that would lessen the hallucinations. They aren’t crazy hallucinations, just fatigue, she reassured herself, but they were still very disturbing. Now there was a gentler glow in the room, but the immense webs, spiders and trees still grew in the room’s darkest corners.
Only once, she thought: what idiocy to have come here. But that seemed the coward’s way out. She came because the country was fascinating and seemed to be undergoing a great change. She came to witness it all, and there was one last piece here in Kingston. One day, she would write it all down. She wanted to know the world and its life undiluted, without illusions, with experience and clarity.
Clarity at the moment was dark corners full of imagined cracks, cracks and boulders and waterfalls and other things she had seen during the day. There was no pallet of colours at all, just black and grey. Can I will what I see? She imagined springs and flowers and there were springs and flowers in the room’s capacious corners. But, only for a moment. The dense geometric shapes and webs and spiders took over again quickly. Why is my mind full of spiders and geometry, she wondered. And, how many hours until first light? Then, she might be able to sleep. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, but the darkness only led to more geometric patterns and cracks.
I am so exhausted . . . she thought. It is inconceivably awful here, perhaps the worst I’ve ever known. Why can’t I just be killed in my sleep, like Lorry? But no, she was too young and there was so much more to her life. It was the vital flow running through this hell of a night. I’d rather live than anything . . .
Was there the sound of a key in the lock and was the doorknob turning? She thought so, though it was very quiet. Instantly, there were circles, doorknobs, in the dark corners of the room. Suddenly the chair fell over, she shouted “No!” at the top of her voice, and thrust the knife out in front of her. The doorknob was dropped and whoever was outside retreated. Lorry awoke in shock but understood the situation immediately when she saw the chair knocked over. Her knife was directly out in front of her. “They’ve gone,” Anna said almost proudly but for the twin curses of fatigue and heat. She arose and locked the door again, then put the chair back. “This had to have the blessing of the man downstairs because he has the only other key to this room. Were you asleep?”
“Yes,” said Lorry. “Weren’t you?”
“Bloody hell, no! I’ve been awake in a room of illuminated dark and spiders and geometric shapes.”
“That’s visual fatigue. I get it on long auto trips. It’s good you were awake and had that chair in place.”
“Funny how I don’t feel good. Now are you going to sleep or will you stay up and enjoy the spiders and cracks in the walls with me?”
“I’m really sorry, but I can sleep through anything, love.”
“It must have something to do with your eternal ironic smile. On one level of thought, death is an ironical result to the illusions of living. I sure can’t sleep after that. I’m on guard duty here until it drives me really crazy; then maybe I can sleep,” Anna said and thought, that makes no sense.
“Makes sense,” Lorry said, falling asleep again.
Oh hell, thought Anna. Oh hell, oh hell, oh hell. Then, she noted the cracks in the corners. They turned into maps of rivers and basins and smiles and knives and guns and at one point, a goat.