Atiya Firewood sat on the bench reserved for the Pastor’s family, towards the side of the pulpit. Alone. Just as she had done for the past decade. She embraced her solitude, seeking no acceptance or friendship, and none was offered. They, mostly the women, still gossiped about her dark mahogany skin, her aloofness. Konpawézon, they said. Pastor should have chosen somebody from his village; light-skinned, friendly, fertile. Mr. and Mrs. Firewood; sunlight and darkness.
Atiya cherished her time alone, gardening and honing crafts her mother had taught her before she had journeyed across to the spiritual realm. In her aloneness, she never felt lonely; her ancestors were always with her. Soon, she would have a descendant to share her space, to teach the centuries-old crafts, and impart wisdom of mothers foregone. A smile played on Atiya’s lips, and she almost rubbed her stomach but remembered where she was. It was her secret, one she had recently discovered, and she wanted to keep that knowledge to herself for as long as she could. Let them continue to believe she was barren.
Before Atiya had gotten married, her mother had warned her. ‘These are not your people.’
Unfazed, Atiya had settled in her husband’s village aged twenty, one year after they had met and bonded on the arduous Boiling Lake Trail. She’d gone hiking with her family; he was there with his village youth group, and the two of them connected, conquering the rugged terrain together. Together they experienced the bleakness of the Valley of Desolation and the lake’s greyness as it boiled and steamed. It came as no surprise that he sought her out weeks later, when he came to her maroon village pretending to be part of a week-long church crusade. They found time to be with each other. Now, their meeting seemed like a lifetime ago, and the memories warmed her. She and her husband had since explored numerous natural sites and discovered less-traversed trails, including one to Atiya’s village.
Atiya looked at her husband now, wiping his face with a mustard handkerchief, the same colour of his skin. Pastor Firewood was stocky in stature, his steel frame trained from years of physical activity. She enjoyed watching him carry wood into their yard, sleek with sweat. Most times, he carried shorter pieces on his head, and hauled the larger ones using thick rope. Panting, he would swing the axe high above his head and slam it with precision onto the logs, uttering a low grunt that would leave her quite aflutter.
This was when he was a carpenter and built things. Five years into their marriage, he left carpentry for pastorship, and although she had never been religious, she supported him.
‘God answers on time! He never fails!’ His voice thundered beyond the church, riding the coattails of the morning breeze down the Atlantic coast.
The congregation would fire back at him, hallelujah!
Atiya’s eyes, the colour of dark-roasted-coffee, shifted to her right, still unaccustomed to the building’s expansion. It was the only concrete structure for miles, besides the Catholic Church. She observed the vultures in the congregation, some with husbands, some without. She didn’t miss the lingering handshakes and elbow touches when he greeted them. Especially Mildred with her fleshy behind; the village’s drunk, the men’s bicycle. A shame, and she couldn’t have been more than twenty-five.
‘Saints!’ Pastor Firewood’s voice pulled Atiya back to him. ‘Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. God is with us!’
Atiya wondered if he believed what he was saying. Sometimes, he did not act like he did. Recently, he spent more time tending his growing flock, less time in their bed. She had started to resent his steel frame; just as he used it to lift the Bible, he used it to break things. Lately, when they didn’t conceive, she steered clear from him. He was an only child and desperate for a son to continue his lineage. She wanted a daughter to love and laugh with, to teach her sacred family traditions. She’d always known a baby would find its way to them. Her husband would be happy about the life growing inside her.
God never fails.
Months later, villagers huddled in the church in clusters, on benches, on cinder blocks, on palleted mattresses. One battery-operated radio crooned gospel music and the occasional announcer’s voice. Few kerosene lanterns were strewn about, elevated because the rain was seeping through all the cracks and pooling on the floor. Heavy objects smashed into the building, items dragged atop the concrete roof, and the walls convulsed, threatening collapse. Pastor Firewood and other men took turns fighting the wind, bracing their bodies against the doors, despite the heavy wood crossbars they installed earlier. Some people covered their popping ears as the air pressure dropped; others played cards. Some muttered prayers whilst others shouted to God, competing with the howling wind, booming thunder and Atiya Firewood’s screams.
Atiya planned on delivering her baby in the privacy of her home, in water, guided by the spirits of her mothers. Mother Nature, however, thwarted her plans, sending her into labour on this night, the night of a hurricane, with everyone present. It was humiliating, and Atiya tried to resist the natural order of things. As she struggled to accept her situation, Mother Nature inflicted pain within her body and ravaged her outside world simultaneously, eroding cliffs with her savage sea and tearing through houses with her feral winds. Atiya’s body throbbed with intense contractions while Mother Nature uprooted trees from places they had held for ages and rendered naked those that dared to stand.
As the contractions worsened and the intensity of the storm heightened, the voices of her mothers whistled in the wind.
Stop resisting. Relax. Harness the power of the storm.
It was an epiphany, realizing that all these forces were working together just for her. All shame went away as Atiya’s body became fluid. She welcomed the energy of the elements, and it flowed through her like a stream.
A few women gathered around Mrs. G, the midwife, handing her towels, water and whatever else she demanded of them.
‘Push!’ she urged.
Feeling victorious, Atiya pushed, her thick hair damp with sweat, her face wet with tears. The engorged rivers pushed, too, barrelling through mountains, carrying boulders, trees, animals and everything in their paths. Mountains slid, covering roads, homes and people.
Mrs. G received the baby from Atiya’s body at the exact moment that lightning crackled, splitting the centuries-old rubber tree. It crashed through a window above Atiya’s head, revealing the electricity stretching and forking across the dark sky. Atiya smiled. Her baby would be a force to reckon with.
Pastor Firewood relocated and tidied Atiya’s makeshift bed. Mrs. G cleaned and swaddled the child.
As the winds subsided, people relaxed. Atiya admired her daughter. She was perfect, beautiful. She had seen the disappointment in her husband’s eyes, but it soon passed. Beaming, he raised their daughter above his head. ‘Behold Jehosheba! Fearless like her namesake!’
His people cheered. Congratulations!
‘Storm-child. Colour of midnight,’ Mildred whispered. ‘Zanfan djab.’
In the following years, the Firewood family settled into a comfortable rhythm, and Pastor Firewood’s temper cooled. As Jehosheba grew, she clung to her mother, unspeaking. She didn’t mingle with other children, and villagers sneered, ‘Chyen pa ka fè chat.’ Dogs don’t make cats.
Pastor Firewood was becoming antsy again, resentful of Jehosheba’s speechlessness.
‘It’s normal for children to speak late,’ Atiya reassured her husband when their daughter turned four.
‘They call her storm-child, midnight-child! She’s God’s child and God’s children speak!’
‘She will speak.’
Atiya was happy with Jehosheba who, moderately deaf, preferred silence. Together, they cultivated herbs and crops based on the moon’s phases. They carried water from the sous; they explored the woods and observed the stars. Their language involved eyes, hands, drawings and writing. Jehosheba copied pages of text from books. It was a joy to see how quickly she learned.
When Jehosheba turned six, Pastor Firewood boarded a truck and took her to a doctor in town.
‘She’s a mute,’ he cried when they returned the next morning. ‘God gave us a moumou!’
Atiya tried in vain to console him. ‘She is no mute. She will speak!’
He retrieved his rusting axe from the adjoining shed and stormed into the house, striking the couch, table, anything. ‘Why did God give a holy man like me a burden like that?! Why?!’
Atiya grabbed Jehosheba and ran to the corrugated-zinc kitchen, its interior blackened from the hearth’s smoke. Atiya planted Jehosheba onto the dirt flooring and wiped her wet cheeks, their dark-roasted-coffee eyes piercing into each other’s.
‘He’s a fool,’ Atiya fumed.
She steadied her breathing.
They drank water from a calabash bowl, and Atiya looked for a stick to draw in the dirt. The fireplace was bare, its smudged stones as cold as the ashes between them.
His voice reached them, hoarse, rage consuming him. The child looked in the direction of the house, and her mother searched her eyes, willing her to communicate her feelings.
Atiya formed a heart with her fingers. ‘I love you just the way you are, my sweet girl. A perfect blessing.’
Atiya removed their leather sandals. ‘The earth is a source of power, and it is important to connect with it to restore balance in our minds and our bodies.’
She drew a wide circle around them with her forefinger while speaking to her daughter. ‘Circles protect energy; ok, Sheba? They keep the negativity out, so we can focus on connecting to our source.’
‘Now, this is the best protective barrier,’ she took a sachet from her skirt pocket and spread salt on the circle. ‘It is good for cleansing and abundance, too. Long, long ago, rich people used to pay their servants with salt; that’s where the word salary comes from. But I’ll tell you about that some other time.’
Bright-eyed, Jehosheba nodded and mirrored her mother. Upturned palms. Slow, deep breaths.
After a while, Atiya stooped to her daughter’s level and placed her palm on her chest. ‘You are light. And fearless. There’s power inside you, and I know you will speak one day.’
Atiya intertwined their hands. ‘You can harness energy from nature for cleansing, healing and other purposes. The moon is a source of power, the sun, stars, flowing water, herbs. I will teach you as you get older, just as my mother taught me, and our mothers before her, who travelled in slave ships all the way from Africa.’
‘Yes.’ A voice so small, as if imagined.
Heart pounding, Atiya glanced at the house, then back at the child. She whispered, ‘Sheba, did you speak?’
Three slow bobs.
Atiya gazed at Jehosheba, misty-eyed, palms pressed together over her lips, as if in prayer. She lifted her. ‘I knew you would speak! There is power inside you, child. Use it.’
‘Don’t tell him yet.’ Atiya rolled her eyes towards the house.
She put on their shoes, hands shaking with elation. ‘I’m taking you somewhere so we can talk.’
In the house, they walked through chaos; smashed radio, shards of glass, splintered wood, foam. Pastor Firewood stood in the couple’s bedroom, staring out the open window that faced the mountains. His back was hunched as if defeated.
‘We’re going for a sea bath,’ Atiya said.
He nodded without turning.
That afternoon, conch-shells trumpeted throughout the village, echoing between its valleys, rising to its ridges. Someone rang the church bell, the peals incessant. It was a cacophony; villagers were giddy with excitement as the news spread from the bayside to the mountainside. They grabbed plastic bags, crocus bags and buckets and headed to the bay. Some hurried along the unpaved roads, chatting with glee. The younger ones tore through short cuts, eager to witness history. At the bayside, the mid-afternoon sun sparkled on the sea’s surface while sweaty bodies assembled, amazed by the abundance and variety of fish.
It was a phenomenon, something they had never seen or heard of before.
‘Dunno wa’happen. All a’sudden our nets full up!’ One wide-brimmed-straw-hatted fisherman said, bewildered.
Maybe there were sharks nearby, some said. Maybe a volcano had erupted under the sea, others said. But they all agreed it was a miracle, enough fish to feed multitudes. As the villagers bagged fish, they discussed who would clean them, who would smoke them for preservation. Some of them fanned flies away with coconut fronds.
Norbert arrived, out of breath, wrinkling his nose at the bay’s acridity. ‘Pastor going mad! Doctor say storm-child rell mute.’
Mildred sat on a stone, cleaning fish, green skirt between thick thighs. She straightened her back. ‘You think is God that give all-you pastor a moumou chile? Zanfan djab!’
‘Why do you always call her zanfan diab. How is she the devil’s child? You need to stop spreading propaganda, Mildred!’ Norbert admonished.
‘Is true. That child is de devil’s child. I see Pastor wife with my own eyes!’
He scoffed. ‘Everybody saw her deliver.’
‘Is before de hurricane I talking about.’ She placed her pail sideways on the stones. Some of the fish slipped out.
‘Wa’ you see?’ People urged Mildred.
‘One Saturday night, I was walking home from disco. Me an’ a friend had just parted ways at de intersection. It was big, bright moon, so I take de shortcut by Pastor house.’
She steadied the pail between the stones and placed the slippery animals back in. ‘I see something behind Pastor kitchen. I blink twice. It still there. I say awa, a soucouyan that. Mwen té pè! Fraid!’
Her audience was rapt.
‘I wanted to make sure it was real. I tip-toe closer, bush scratching my skin. I hide behind a coconut tree. I see Pastor wife inside a white circle rubbing her belly. Toutouni! Naked, I tell you! Her black skin was shining like de moon was inside her. Stretching her hands up-up-up like she wanted to touch de sky. Over an over she do that, repeating words I never hear before. I was transfix, my heart wild! Wild, I tell you! All a’sudden she turn my way. I say I dead! I run! Never look back!’
Mildred’s tone softened. ‘That night I din’ sleep. Next day my friend say I was so drunk maybe I was seeing things. So I never talk about it again. But when I see her belly growing, I know I was right. That chile is de devil chile. Zanfan djab!’
She spat on the stones next to her and made the sign of the cross.
The only sounds were the waves lapping and fish flapping in the boats, occasionally plopping into the sea. Mildred continued. ‘Rember lightning strike exactly when storm-chile born? A sign of evil. When she enter de world, people had to die. Sacrifices for de devil. Sacrifices I tell you!’
In the ensuing silence, someone cleared their throat. The crowd turned to see Atiya and Jehosheba standing a little distance away, glistening with seawater.
‘I hope you enjoy the fish I gathered,’ Jehosheba said.
People gasped. Screamed. Cowered. Scattered.
‘Soukouyan!’ Mildred shouted. ‘Zanfan djab!’ She formed a cross with her forefingers. Others joined her, using forearms, their fingers or sticks to form crosses. They followed Atiya and Jehosheba from a distance, insulting them all the way home.
Seeing the fear on her daughter’s face, Atiya squeezed her hand. ‘Don’t listen to them, Sheba. In times like this we have to be brave and courageous. We are light, and you are extremely gifted, and because of that people will want to destroy you.’
The mob called Pastor Firewood out of the trashed house. He was still stooped, as if life’s burdens had conquered him, rendered him useless. Incensed, they spilled stories to Pastor Firewood, saying Atiya summoned fertility demons; she commanded animals; spells made Jehosheba talk.
‘Jehosheba? Talk?’ he asked, disbelieving.
‘Stone them!’ Mildred shouted.
Horrified, Atiya clutched Jehosheba’s hand and disappeared behind the house, listening as other villagers’ voices joined Mildred’s, one by one as though they were looking to each other for confirmation before participating.
‘Atiya will explain herself,’ Atiya heard her husband say above the others’ voices. It seemed like he suddenly remembered that language was still available to him, and he could use it. Effectively.
‘Search the main road!’ he commanded.
Atiya nimbly guided Jehosheba into the mountains. ‘I know a trail that leads to our maroon village where we’ll be safe and free.’
‘A-ti-ya!’ Pastor’s voice resounded over the hills and valleys, carrying the depth of his pain, and it lodged itself into Atiya’s soul. But she kept going, needing to preserve herself for Jehosheba and needing to protect Jehosheba. In many ways, she considered herself free; a freedom she had not anticipated, but one she appreciated.
As the shouting faded, the forest’s ambience soothed them. Coolness. Greenery. Rustling leaves. Birds. Petrichor. Across rivers, valleys and ridges, Firewood’s anguished cry lingered, leaving Atiya heavy-hearted yet optimistic. Her husband had directed the mob to the main road, thereby saving her and Jehosheba. He was very much aware that her first place of escape would be the mountains where she felt comfortable discovering trails created by long-dead maroons or creating new ones based on the sun’s path. He knew she could find her way back to her community. Atiya walked on, considering the enormity of her husband’s action. He was the leader of their church, and he had helped her escape, she who practiced something completely different from what he preached. Perhaps he had known and had shielded her all these years. And in that moment, her heart was bursting with something she couldn’t name.
Nightfall’s cloak settled, sylphlike. Insects rejoiced. Slivers of moon danced through the forest’s canopy. Atiya spoke to her daughter, ‘Our mothers are guiding us tonight, just as they have always done, and they always will. You are never alone, Sheba. Never forget that. You understand?’
‘And whatever you do, guard your gifts. See how they wanted to harm us today? Guard your gifts, and use them only for good.’
‘Are you afraid?’
‘No, Ma. I am light. I am fearless.’
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