‘Oats’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
People is always tell me I mad because I does keep oats in my shirt pocket, but I is tell them to mind they own business because they don’t know the things I know and they never see the things I see.
Look. I know I’s only nineteen so I don’t have no plenty plenty life experience to talk bout, I ent know much and I ent see much, but is take a man nine months to born and a second to die. What I saying is thing is happen and is happen fast and when that change come it does come and you can’t go back. If it have anybody that know that is me. I’s a man that done make a jail. Or youth training centre they’s want to call it but is no training they coulda train me. What they feel it is? I is not no dog.
But hear how I end up there. When I was thirteen I thought I was a big man already and I did make sure everybody know that. Except Johnny Ram down Vishnu Trace did have some trouble believing me so I’d put him in a coma and they put me in the kennel.
Ma boyfriend at the time was a lawyer and he get me out after a year, but any little thing again and I woulda get pelt back behind them walls like a mango seed.
Talking about pelting mango seed, that’s exactly how I meet him.
Mr. Lal lived in a board and galvanize house at the dead end of Vishnu Trace and if you asked someone if they knew him they’d be quick to say no because everybody and their great mama used to go by Obeah Man Lal. That’s until the pastor say is devil he’s devil and then is like a leper they used to treat him.
Back then, I’d never see him in the flesh. Nobody with teeth in they mouth ever see Mr. Lal and it had a whole set of rumours that used to go around about him.
‘You hear how Janice baby dead in she?’
‘Yes girl. Is Lal self I feel it is you know. You know how that pastor family get obeah put on them.’
‘I hear the pastor grandchild didn’t pass he common entrance.’
‘Is Lal with he obeah. Everybody know the pastor grandchildren bright. You never see how they is work them smartphone and tablet like is nothing?’
And when pastor dead, Mr. Lal was the man they come to point finger at even though the pastor was so old he couldn’t remember he own daughter face and I sure when they bawl all they could bawl they went home and blame Mr. Lal for they sore throat.
Some used to say he was mad, but if it ever had a madman in Vishnu Trace it was me. I remember it had a time I did burn the pastor wife garden.
But other than burning garden and putting people children in comas, I used to like to pelt mango seed. Buss a post man head once. But anyway, a day Ma did beat me bad bad because she hear from Ms. Janice husband that he see me smoking, down in some back street with the fellas I used to lime with. And let me tell you how I did get vex eh…
To spite Ms. Janice husband, I decide to go and pipe mango off they tree. They had the nice Buxton Spice that used to sell for serious money because them mangoes rare (and is taste real good). Did pick all of em. Tree was full, overburden to the point where mango was falling and rotting on the ground and it filled the street with a sickly sweet scent.
When Johnny Ram see me walking down the trace, this man jump over the fence and stand on the pavement, blocking the way. ‘Oi, Forceripe Frederick, was that you have in the garbage bag? Smelling nice.’
‘Was that you call me there, Ram?’
He walked round and start to feel up the bag. ‘Is mango? I could get one or what?’
‘Like you not hearing me.’ I jerked it away from him. ‘You forget what happen last time or I hadda hit you one to jog the memory?’
Johnny Ram grinned. ‘You going to do something, Forceripe Frederick? You going to cuff me down?’ He bent down and pointed at his head. ‘Go ahead nah. As hard as you can, please. You know I is have problem remembering and thing since you buss me up last time.’
I pushed past him and continued walking.
‘Whahappen? You fraid or what?’ He grabbed my wrist. ‘Oi, I talking to you.’ ‘I don’t fraid nothing, Johnny Ram. Not you and not no jail.’
‘Jail? I ent say nothing bout no jail, y’know.’
Pushing him away, I broke free from his grip and he fell down. ‘You better give me a mango or I telling your Ma, Frederick.’
‘Doh lie. You throw yourself down.’
‘Why I go throw myself down? You and all.’ He got up and dusted behind his short pants. ‘Five seconds to give me a mango or I screaming.’
‘I not giving you no-’
‘You feel I fraid you?’
‘Look nah, you better-’
‘If you scream I will find a big stone and-’
‘Alright, alright. Take however much you want. Half of them overripe anyway.’ ‘Just like you eh, Frederick?’ He went into the bag and begun to dig around.
We end up walking down the trace that evening, eating mango with we hand sticky sticky and flies buzzing about. Those days it was safe. I don’t live in Vishnu Trace again since I move up north to study English literature at the university, but last I hear it have some gang war or something like up Laventille side where thing so bad even police fraid to go up that hill. To tell you the truth, it was only a matter of time. It had men like me who did feel they bad, but it had the real badman too, the kinda man that is cuff to kill and is cuss like a West Indian Shakespeare.
‘So you don’t fraid nothing eh, Frederick?’
I spat a mango seed in the drain. ‘Nothing.’
‘But everybody fraid something.’
‘You don’t even fraid God self?’
I hesitated for a second, ripping the skin from a mango with my teeth. ‘Don’t fraid nothing.’
We had reached the end of the trace where thick bush grew wild, far back to where the sun is rise, but before it all was Mr. Lal’s shack. Nothing grew around it and the earth was bare.
‘What about the obeah man?’ said Johnny Ram, sucking on a mango seed. ‘You hadda be a real madman not to fraid he.’
I laughed. ‘Obeah? Doh tell me you believe in that kinda stupidness.’
‘I not too sure you know, boy Frederick. My mother tell me he kill my brother in she womb.’
‘Everybody know your mother was a working girl, Johnny Ram. Is not no obeah kill your brother. Is shame and a cricket bat.’
He stared at his bare feet, eyebrows knotted and then looked up, smiling. ‘Throw a mango seed through he window nah.’
I looked at him. ‘What?’
‘You say you doh fraid Obeah Man Lal, right?’ Johnny Ram pointed at Mr.
Lal’s window. ‘Then throw a mango seed through he window. I doubt you so strong to buss through it though, but still, you say you ent fraid him. So prove it.’
Without a second thought, I did spit the seed I was sucking into my hand and pelt it hard. It shatter the glass and there was a hoarse groan from the dark inside. Johnny Ram was already halfway up the trace.
Then a light turn on and a old man poke he head through the window. It had a weeping gash running across he temple. When he see me, we eyes meet and without a word he beckon me and then next thing I know, I opening he rusted gate and waiting at the doorstep.
At the time, I thought it was obeah that move my foot, but I know now that I helped him because I didn’t have it in me to leave a man to dead.
Nobody born bad. Well, except psychopaths I think, but that is something else entirely and I wasn’t no psycho torturing dogs or nothing. I was a miserable child bored outta he head and I did never know what to do with my life. Never. I still don’t know, but I have some ideas and I go figure it out one of these days.
When Mr. Lal open the door, I get a better look at he face, ancient and like the husk of a dry coconut and he eyes was greyed over and murky as though it had cobweb over it. They watched blankly.
With blood dripping down the side of he face, Mr. Lal smiled. ‘Come in, boy.’
He put me to sit by the table in the kitchen and then he sat, holding a cloth to his head. ‘Let me ask you something, boy,’ he said. I swallowed hard. ‘Why you didn’t run? You dotish?’
‘How you mean I dotish? Is obeah you put on my tail and bring me here.’
‘Oh, obeah.’ He scratched his chin. ‘Right, yeah obeah. Obeah. You better do what I tell you, boy, or is more obeah you getting. Bad, bad obeah.’
‘What you want?’
Mr. Lal walked me through stitching up the gash and when I was done, I bandaged it and then he went to his room to lie down.
‘Tell me if I wrong,’ he said, ‘but you is Sheila son? Frederick?’
‘Why you want to know my name for? I doing what you tell me. It don’t have no reason to put obeah on me.’
‘If you don’t call your name now, spirits as witness, I will obeah you. And I will know if you lying eh, boy. I will know.’
‘Yeah, is Frederick. Is Frederick.’
‘Once is enough, boy. Only my eyes bad.’ He sighed and pulled the blanket up to his chest. ‘Now tell me, why the hell you pelting stone at my house?’
‘It was a mango seed.’
‘Mango seed? Mango seed don’t do that kinda damage, boy. But that’s not the point. I want to know why you was pelting down my house.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know.’ He threw up his arms. ‘Boy don’t know, yes. Frederick, I feel like you must have something in you, y’know. Something bad.’
‘It don’t have nothing in me.’
‘That’s the spirit talking.’
‘No, is me talking.’
‘You sure that’s you? Frederick from Vishnu Trace?’
‘You going mad or what? It can’t be nobody but me.’
‘Then tell me why you was pelting mango seed.’
I was quiet for a while and I remember looking into darkness under the bed, thinking about how much I wanted to get out of that house and how confused I was. Let me tell you, it was a kinda confusion you does get sometimes when you suddenly aware of thinking and then you aware of being and then you don’t know what. You don’t know nothing. And I did know less than nothing at the time.
‘Because I don’t fraid nothing,’ I said, still staring into the dark. ‘That’s why I pelt the mango seed at your house.’
‘Then you really dotish, yes.’ He laughed. ‘I did know your mother father. Used to come by me for all kinda thing and I remember he did say he had a grandson miserable like he ent no what. But I never think he grandson was so miserable to go and try to kill heself pelting the obeah man house.’
‘I could go now?’
‘Boy, I close to deading here with the cut you give me and you want to know if you could go?’
‘Sorry? Boy, I is a obeah man. Sorry is not how we is do thing. You coming here bright and early tomorrow morning six o’clock. Else is obeah.’
Mr. Lal had a bowl of dry oats on the nightstand and, taking a handful, he put it in he shirt pocket. Next to it was a picture of a younger him with a lil fella. ‘Hurry up and go nah. I tired like I ent know what.’
As I was about to leave he stopped me. ‘And don’t go and tell nobody about this eh. I ent want no riot in front my house tomorrow time, people telling me I putting obeah on people child. Have no time for that kinda thing. Man my age either counting seconds like is new year or like a vagrant with one cent.’
Time next morning it have chair set up next to he bedside with a pile of book on the bed. Bed is a small thing, metal frame with a thin mattress and a single pillow and it had about five book in the stack by the foot. I remember he room used to smell minty. Like Vicks. Other than the bed and a nightstand, Mr. Lal had a dusty shelf crammed with old volumes and decaying stacks of papers.
‘You know how to read?’ he said.
‘Yeah, I could read.’
‘Well say so nah. Wham?’
‘Pick up the first book on the stack. If my memory right and I take it from the correct shelf, it should have a blue cover.’
‘Paradise Lost by John Milton,’ I said, reading the cover.
‘Ah, that’s it. That’s it.’
‘What you want me to do with it?’
‘What you does do with a book, boy? Read the thing. Loud and clear, please.’
‘I don’t have no time for this. I have things to do, I can’t be sitting here reading some book for you like I working retirement home. I have a life and thing.’
‘You not going to have no life when I put obeah on you.’
Brushing the dust off the cover, I coughed and then cracked it open and began reading.
‘Stop,’ said Mr. Lal.
‘You never read poetry before?’
‘I’s a big man.’
‘That’s not what I ask, boy.’
‘You think I have time for this kinda nonsense?’
‘You going on and on about time, but what you is do with your time?’
‘It have plenty thing I does do.’
‘Oh right, I forget you is big man, have wife and two children. Sorry, boy. I real sorry.’
‘I don’t like your attitude.’
‘It go have plenty more thing you go don’t like when you get older, boy. And you go don’t like it more than my attitude.’ He held out his hand and I give him the book. ‘Have this thing long long time. Since when I was a lecturer.’
‘Lecturer don’t talk like that.’
‘You sure right. But I can speak both the dialect and the standard variation, switching between them as I see fit.’
‘You’s one a them schizos or what they’s call them.’
He rest down the book on my lap and then grabbed my hand and pressed it against my chest. ‘Wham to you-’
‘Listen. You feel that? One two, one two. They’s have a fancy name for it call the iambic pentameter, but all you have to know is that’s the most naturalest of rhythm. Now open the book and read the words with the beat. One two. One two. Stress it on two.’
I began to read and the words flowed and then it seemed that time flowed with it. Before I knew it, I had finished a few pages and there were streaks of tears running down his cheeks from dead eyes.
‘That’s enough,’ he said. Mr. Lal emptied his shirt pocket, heavy with oats, putting it in a container. Then he grabbed a fistful of fresh dry oats from the bowl on the nightstand and carefully poured it in. He closed his eyes.
When I come next morning, Mr. Lal was lying down motionless and I did think is dead he dead so I start to shake him.
He rubbed his eyes. ‘What you doing here, boy? I didn’t tell you to come back.’
‘So I free to go then? You not going to put no obeah on me?’
‘Boy I ent do obeah in the longest time. It was only a side thing to begin with, keeping with tradition and all that. So go your way.’
‘I don’t believe you. You lying. Time I turn my back you going to put obeah on me, I know it. Don’t feel I don’t know.’ And you know I pick up that book and I start reading, not even understanding half of the thing. All I know is it did sound good and I wouldn’t admit it then, but I did like reading. I liked hearing the words leave my mouth. I liked how it felt saying them. And not understanding nothing I was reading, I still feel something stirring in the deepest part of me. Somewhere dark. Somewhere dormant.
Them two months holidays I’d get up each day at six o’clock, walking to the end of Vishnu Trace and read for Mr. Lal. Then sometimes I’d bring a plate of whatever Ma cook when I realise all he was eating was oats soak in water and orange juice he niece was bringing every Sunday after church, sneaking through the back door to make sure nobody see she. Other than that, he had no one.
It had a day I’d come a little late, about lunchtime, and it was a two weeks after I’d meet him.
‘It don’t really matter.’
‘Let me ask you something, boy. You have any respect for me?’
‘Well I mean-’
‘Is yes or no, son.’
‘Not no yeah. Yes, Mr. Lal.’
‘Alright, alright. Yes, Mr. Lal. I respect you.’
‘Good, now pick up from Hamlet. And I want to hear it in character eh, not no monotone thing.’
‘You don’t find it kinda weird for me to be reading all the characters?’ He shook his head. ‘Is a sacrifice I go make to hear it again.’
Only ten minutes in and he stopped me, resting his hand on the open page.
He looked serious.
‘I don’t want you coming here if it go cause trouble. And you know how them is.’ He sighed. ‘I is a blind man but sometimes I does feel they more blind than me.’
‘You feel you could fool me, Mr. Lal, but I too smart for that. Is obeah you go be putting by the time I walk out that door and say I not coming back.’
He laughed. ‘Finish the act and go home. I getting tired.’
When I was done, he went to change the oats in his pocket, but his hand knocked down the picture frame sitting next to it and it fell, the glass breaking.
‘Lord Father. Son, just pick that up for me, please.’
I picked up the shards of glass and left the photo on the nightstand.
Time I step out the door is like prophecy come true. Ma standing with slipper in she hand and all the church ladies behind she like a lynch mob.
Then I heard the gate creak open behind me and is Mr. Lal limping coming with he walking stick, hunch over but with he head high. And boy let me tell you how these people shock. Mouth drop, mouth cover with hand and Ma there making the sign a the cross muttering Jesus name.
When Mr. Lal reach in front of she, Ma take a step back and watch him hard.
‘You take my son,’ she said.
‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘Had to put some strong obeah on that boy to make him come, but he break eventually.’
‘Obeah? Ma,’ I said pulling on her bodice, ‘the man didn’t do nothing. He ent put no obeah on me.’
‘See,’ said Mr. Lal. ‘Strong obeah.’
Ma pulled a cross from she bag and a next old lady come running with a bible, but Mr. Lal was done closing he door.
Well Ma lock me in my room and bathe me, scrub like I never know scrub down and with holy water too. She did take me to the pastor and have him talk to me and all kinda thing. Man say Satan have me good. I tell him yeah.
Didn’t see Mr. Lal for about a week. That time I was thinking plenty, about the books and all that, but what did always strike me odd was how he’d change the oats in he pocket every time he go and sleep. I thought it was a obeah man thing, but obeah and oats is from two different worlds. I thought it was because he was mad, but Mr. Lal wasn’t really mad, to be honest, only a little off. Then I thought it was if he get hungry during the night, but the man woulda choke on them dry oats.
At the end of my imprisonment, I went back and it was a good thing I was a harden child, otherwise I woulda never see Mr. Lal again.
That day, he wanted me to read him Miguel Street by Naipaul. Used to hear he name call plenty in school and I did never bother to take him serious, but Mr. Lal did say this man is something else and Miguel Street was he favourite.
And by the time I done read it for him and sun setting it was my favourite.
‘Hand me the picture on the nightstand,’ said Mr. Lal. I gave it to him and he held it tight and smiled. ‘I used to read it to him, you know. He was a good boy. A smart boy. But he did want nothing to do with me when he get big and then I didn’t want nothing to do with him. It was a bitterness that take me.’ He put the picture down. ‘Dead in a car accident. Just like that. Like nothing. One second I hating him and next second I want to dead because I realise I did always love my son.’
Mr. Lal start to cough and I gave him a napkin. When he move it from he mouth it bloody.
The day before they bury him, I asked Mr. Lal why he is keep oats in he pocket. I don’t know why I waited so long, but I think it was because I wanted to figure it out myself, a habit I developed trying to make sense of the books he had me reading.
‘Because oats good for you, boy. And is something I used to take for granted eating every day. Keeping it in my pocket is a simple reminder: if something’s as good as oats, keep it near your heart. Don’t forget about it no matter what. I does change it twice a day- once in the morning when I get up and right before I go to bed.’
Funeral was he niece and me. I’d tell my mother I went to buy KFC. Niece step out for a smoke and never come back.
I tell you, when that man dead I’d cry like I never cry before in my whole fourteen years a life. And I was the biggest man in Vishnu Trace. Maddest man too. Because next day and every day after that, people want to know why it have oats in my shirt pocket. Sometimes I does tell them to mind they own business, sometimes I does tell them is obeah and sometimes, if I in the mood, I does buy them a drink and tell them about the man who used to live at the end of Vishnu Trace.