Black Bird

The morning sun was a mammy apple, big and round and yellow. On this mammy apple morning a child awoke and went out into the world. It was in the morning of life, filled with the fragrance of lemon grass and the freshness of orange blossoms. There was a green glossiness about the world like the glossy smoothness of mango leaves. Films of dew had formed on the grass and on the tiny leaves of the shy Ti Marie and the precocious jump-up-and-kiss-me that ran together on the ground. Dew dripped from the leaves and branches of the bird-cherry tree and the sugar dish bush. The aroma of coffee and homemade cocoa, brewed from freshly baked and grounded beans had not yet contaminated the scent of lemon grass that was the natural aroma of the mammy apple morning. The makers of breakfast were still cuddled in their beds, late risers on Saturday mornings.

The child skipped gingerly over the gravel and dew-drenched grass towards the gifts that waited under the big longe mango tree at the back of the house. The windblown mangoes lay where they had settled after falling and rolling, waiting for him. But the night wind was not the only bringer of gifts, for there were plums to be collected under the mango tree, big red dimpled plums, sweet-scented pink-skin pomme rose and yellow skin cashew with blushes of red, the nut intact at the bottom end, to be twisted free, put out to dry and, later, roasted. Presents from bats and owls. All went into the old straw hat, one by one, two by two. All except their gifts of galba, good only for pitching as marbles or as missiles for catapult.

The black sage bushes along the path were covered in love vines. Bright yellow, stringy and beautiful, tantalizing to the eyes, seductive, fragile. They lived off the lovers they clung to for sustenance, covering them completely, depriving them of photosynthesis, until they dried up, the love vines dying with them. It is a paradox incomprehensible to a child.

On that mammy apple morning a full moon lay below the love vine burdened black sage bush. It had fallen out of the sky during the night, rolled and settled there. The child traced its journey from the high branches of the nearby mammy apple tree, calculated the distance, retrieved the big globular thick-skinned fruit,the colour of a full moon, a fruit indigenous to the island, a god among fruits to the original Caribs.

A chirp of distress from some winged life caught among the love vines alerted him. The child had dreamed of hearing a black bird singing in the dead of night, dreamed whilst being wide awake. He extricated the black bird, heart palpitating, body tingling with excitement, savoring already the satisfaction of possession, its cage already constructed in his imagination. The black bird escaped the cautious grasp, which was not so firm as to crush and strangle it, yet not so loose as to let it slip away. But slip away it did. Flew awkwardly away, but not far enough. It fell, rather than landed, from exhaustion, on sugar dish shrubs, its wings and feathers soaked with dew. One of its wings was broken.

The broken winged black bird flew away just as the child’s hands closed in upon it again. Flew a short distance to stumble and fall among razor-edged grass where weaverbirds built their nests and snakes lurked to prey on their eggs and nestling. This time it flew farther away towards some bamboo reeds just as the child was within hand’s reach of its panting, frightened feathered being. The child followed and the broken winged black bird led him farther and farther away.

Past the rows of guava trees bearing gifts still too green for picking, across the field of corn interplanted with pigeon peas. He pursued the broken winged black bird through fields interplanted with a variety of spices that has distinguished the island as the Isle of Spice – nutmeg, tonka beans, pimento, cloves, cinnamon, sapot, bergamot. His deft senses sifted out their individual familiar smells from the commingled aroma as he followed the broken winged black bird into the hills, into the high woods, everything else forgotten. The mammy apple sun that had risen higher into the sky was also forgotten. The old straw hat filled with the gift of windblown mangoes and the presents of bats and owls, the indigenous moon color globular mammy apple lying at the top in its exalted position as fruit of the gods, was also forgotten. The anticipated breakfast of hot bakes, saltfish souse and cocoa tea made from freshly baked and grounded beans from the trees that surrounded the house, was also forgotten. Anxious grandmother, committed to her role as guardian of her grandchild, was also forgotten, as he followed the broken-winged black bird.

The high woods were joyful with the chirping of cissy birds, the cooing of cuckoo mayok, ground doves and pedwi and the whirring wings of ramier and Grenada doves. Lizards chased each other up and down the trunks of cip trees, cedars, gomier and cutlet. Brown snakes slithered swiftly on the carpet of fallen leaves on the forest floor. The broken winged black bird led the child deeper and deeper into the woods.

In a clearing, filled with the aroma of bayleaf and dominated by bois den (bay leaf) trees in various stages of growth, a fascinating scene materialized. A young Rastafarian, his dreadlocks so long and matted he sat on them, clad only in raggy three-quarter pants that once must have been a full length pair of Levi jeans. He held a sturdy bois den staff between his drawn up knees. His hair was decorated with butterflies. They covered the top of his head, flew all around him like moths around a light bulb. Flocks of ramier landed on the ground around him and perched on his naked shoulders. Ground doves walked quick-paced on the gravelly ground in front of him pecking at gold dust, pollen and tiny seeds. His eyes, deep and penetrating in their sunken sockets transfixed the boy. His body was taut, sinewy, lean, glowing with the health of a strict vegetarian diet and the application of an insect repellant of herbs mixed with coconut oil. His crocus bag, bulging with gathered herbs and roots, hung from a nearby water lemon vine. The Rastaman sucked on a water lemon, having bitten off the top of the padded skin to release the juicy mass of flesh-protected seeds.

‘Where you going, youthman?’

The child pointed in the direction of the broken winged black bird, resting on the swaying branches of a young gru gru palm surrounded by broad leaf ferns and wild tannia.

‘You will never catch it. It escapes everyone. Imperfect as it is, it is inexorable, unconquerable.’

The broken winged black bird, rested, flew off again, towards a tangle of withes and lianas and dense undergrowth. The child started after it but the Rastafarian mystic leapt to his feet and restrained him. They struggled in that clearing, the child screaming, scratching and biting.

By the time the Rastafarian mystic returned him to his anxious grandmother he was subdued. She was certain the broken winged black bird was a bagidia spirit wind that misleads and disorientates, blows in your face and sets you on a course whose direction you cannot change, having deprived you of free will, of the freedom to make decisions, having rendered you mindless, taking you towards some unknown and unknowable destination, uprooted and rootless, adrift like a ship without an anchor. The victim invariably resists any attempt to be brought to his or her senses. The Rastafarian mystic assured her that it was not bagidi that had blown into the youthman’s face that had led him astray but only a broken winged black bird he had been chasing.

‘We must all pursue our broken winged black bird’, he concluded. ‘You must have pursued yours, granny. Did you ever manage to catch it?’

The grandmother of the boy confessed that she had tried and it had eluded her but that, in the evening of her life, she had no regrets.

In the years that followed, the boy forgot about the broken winged black bird until in middle adolescence he stumbled upon it perching on a branch of a sapodilla tree that grew outside the window through which he saw the world upon awakening. He felt compelled to pursue it and this time the broken winged black bird did not lead him into the highwoods, into the heart of the universe of the island. The broken wing black bird flew into the sun and disappeared with it when it descended beyond the rim of the ocean to lands of far-beyond, worlds unknown. The broken winged black bird had to be pursued beyond the horizon of the island.

March 19th, 2004 by