In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Roland Watson-Grant’s ‘The Disappearance of Mumma Dell’ is the winning entry from the Caribbean.
Well, it’s not like I didn’t know the rules concernin’ that particular avocado pear tree on the other side of the train tracks in River Gut. Everybody in that district – from the Church of the Living Drum on the hill, down the slope past the postal agency ‘round the bend to the bar across from Riggs’ Wholesale and all the way to the boneyard bottom-side the market – everybody know you ain’t supposed to be jumpin’ the chicken wire fence to go climb that avocado tree, but nobody ever tell me why.
So one Sat’day when I was ‘bout ten, I get brave and go ask Mrs Warren. I use to call my mother ‘Mrs Warren’ because that’s one of the titles she had in the district even though it piss her off to be wearin’ the last name of a man who drop seed like bird and leave things to grow wild, but that’s another story. Anyway, she stop stitchin’ on the sewing machine, look at me over her glasses and wag the usual index finger.
‘Miguel, more than three Labour Days we join together as a community to build back that fence after ram-goat or evil spirit mash it down. And next time, we goin’ build a concrete wall! I goin’ personally mix the mortar. Don’t you go over there!’
When I tell her that she didn’t really answer the question, she pushed back the chair and step towards me, eyes on fire.
‘Nothin’ good can come from under that pear tree, you hear me? Only reason I don’t chop it down is ‘cause government come tear down enough in River Gut a’ready.’
And she finish off with the lamentation that my generation would be better off if we follow rules instead of Instagram. Well, by the time I go down the road to Riggs’ Wholesale and come back, she finish off a brand new blue tablecloth and a turban to match. She ask me which way I walk to go to Riggs’.
‘Main road’, I answer quick before she even finish the question. She know it was a lie straight from hell, so I get dirty looks ‘til bedtime, and even after I nod off, you bet your life she search the house for contraband pear and come give me the same sermon again in my sleep, over and over like the crickets complaining out in the bush.
See, you have to understand Mrs Warren. My mother is Zion people. My mother believe that when you sleepin’ you’re more conscious than when your two eyes open. She believe that the spirit leave the body and walk ‘round when night come. So as soon as I start snore, she believe my spirit jump through the window and gone straight to the pear tree. So you can imagine how every night she stand up over me and preach it back into the bed.
You also have to understand that as far as my mother is concerned, every dream she get is a message from the Most High, even if she really did go hard on a plate of stew peas before bedtime. You have to understand that Jacinda Carmela Warren is founder and Shepherd Mother of the Church of the Living Drum. So whatever spiritual rule she lay down in River Gut is the law on earth as it is in heaven now and forevermore, Amen and Selah.
So I wasn’t a stranger to the commandment that nobody should set foot over the train track even when the tree heavy with the plumpest, prettiest green-skin avocados your eyes ever behold on the earth, because to eat from it would be to unleash calamity upon yourself and the entire district.
Well, look here – little boys don’t listen.
Now, it’s not like I could avoid the damn tree either. Every direction I turn – even inside my own yard up on the slope – it was like the pear tree watchin’ me over the fence. When Mrs Warren send me out, I pass by and the breeze make it call out to me when I was really just tryin’ to go about my mother business. Couldn’t understand how a tree watered by the same holy Sweetwater River that my mother baptize people in could cause so much temptation.
Mrs Warren said that back in the nineties when Jamaica Railway used to rumble through River Gut carryin’ people instead of bauxite, folks would pick pear and do brisk business with passengers before the train chug back into the bush. But over time the cargo turn pay dirt and the tree grow into a mystery.
Anyway, follow me now. The same night after Mrs Warren wag her finger at me, maybe my spirit really did climb through the window and go down the hill, because I dream see myself over the barbwire fence, staring up into the avocado tree. And let me tell you, it was like the heavens open and show me a vision like the prophet Ezekiel.
Overhead, the Milky Way was shimmering as if God spill salt all over a marble kitchen counter. Every once in a while a star would slip out of place and skid across the sky like a raindrop against a windshield. And the tree – hallelujah – the tree was heavy with avocados shining like they soaked up all of the sunset. So I pick a low-hangin’ avocado pear and strip off the skin and wolf it down with salt that I scooped off the sky. Well, no doubt Mrs Warren hear me gobblin’ the imaginary avocado in my sleep, because next mornin’ she put down one piece of preachin’ up at the church.
Yes, man. Shepherd Mother set up a Deliverance Table that Sunday. Now a Deliverance Table is not a normal thing at the Church of the Living Drum. When you see a Deliverance Table it mean there is a serious confrontation between good and evil and Shepherd Mother was goin’ to call for backup from the sky.
So the church sisters take the brand new blue tablecloth Mrs Warren stitch the day before and spread it on the Deliverance Table and line up fourteen blue candles side by side because that is the colour of the heavens from whence cometh help. And Shepherd Mother sprinkle the Table with holy water from the Sweetwater River and instead of the usual Guinness and Red Stripe for the ancestral earth spirits, she put down seven guava and four loaf of hardough bread in the shape of the Cross of Calvary.
And the young drummers play the spiritual war-drums boom–budum and the rhythm echo off the zinc sheets that make up the church and Shepherd Mother sing and the people respond.
‘Ohhhh, we come to cut destruction!
(Cut and clear!)
‘We come to step pon Satan!’
(Cut and clear!)
Now every time she wheel ‘round she find me in the congregation and look me dead in the eye and this is how I know that the whole service was about me and the damn pear tree. Well, Shepherd Mother walk up and down from the Deliverance Table to the back of the church callin’ on the archangels Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel to spread six wings and form a fence beside the train line. She sing Oh Let the Power Fall on Me with a measuring tape ‘round her neck. She take a piece of tailor chalk and draw a line across the floor before she turn in the direction of the pear tree and bawl out to the evil spirits: ‘You cannot cross it!’ and the congregation catch fire.
Now even when the sun climbed high into the sky and turn the church into a zinc sheet oven, Shepherd Mother just ready to preach. She preach ‘bout the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and how River Gut valley deep because this is the exact spot where the devil drop when the Most High dash him out of Zion.
She groan in the Spirit until she soak in sweat and fall down and it was Sister Ferguson who work at the postal agency that had to go lift her up, even though Shepherd Mother did put Sister Ferguson to sit on the back bench for always sorting through people business. Anyway, all of a sudden, while my mother was speakin’ in tongues, I hear something drop out of her mouth in plain English. It was a name I never heard before. And that name was the light in the darkness, like when you look into the tunnel and see the bauxite train comin’ through.
Well, same evening Mrs Warren send me to Riggs’ Wholesale to get bread, because she used her personal groceries on the Deliverance Table. Some church members at Riggs’ Bar see me comin’, so they disappear because they should not be interacting with liquor without Shepherd Mother supervision.
Anyway, Brother Anthony was too tipsy to notice me, so I just cross the street to the bar, pull out the cell phone I borrow from Mrs Warren and start takin’ pictures of him and his glass of white rum. Well, Brother Anthony come to him senses, jump off the barstool and stride up the road. I followed him. He stopped and leaned against a utility pole on it, breathin’ hard.
‘Young bwoy, your mother and father done vex wid me a’ ready. Why you take me picture to go show Shepherd Mother, Miguel?’
‘I goin’ to delete it, Brother Anthony.’
While the man sweatin’ like mule, I stay cool. Cool like the breeze rollin’ down the slope from Guy’s Hill. Cool like the clouds that touch down in the trees on top of Blue Mountains. Brother Anthony watchin’ to see if I delete the picture.
‘What you waitin’ for, Miguel? You want money?’
‘I want to know who is Mumma Dell.’
Well look now. As soon as the name drop inside Brother Anthony ears, him start shake.
‘No Miguel . . . please –’
‘You don’t know who Mumma Dell is, Brother Anthony?’
‘Why you don’t ask your mother, eh? That name is the reason I start the damn drinkin’ in the first place. Ten years now!’
‘Brother Anthony this mornin’ I watch my mother on the church floor bawlin’ out: What you want from me, Mumma Dell? So, man to man, tell me who is Mumma Dell, before I send this picture to Shepherd Mother other phone.’
Well, same time Brother Anthony jump into a taxi and leave me wonderin’ how a little name could frighten a big man so. Well he wasn’t the only one. When I look ‘round for somebody else to ask ‘bout Mumma Dell, people just start evaporate like morning dew. Now, when you think about it, there was a whole heap more to be scared of in River Gut – things only my geography teacher, Mr Coombs would talk about in class.
Like the fact that River Gut had ulcers – holes ten-foot wide by forty-foot deep left in the district by an overseas company testing for bauxite. Or how Siphon1 – the European mobile company – drop one hell of a cell phone tower on the land behind the postal agency. How Johncrows congregated on the tower every day, watching us. But those vultures were not the ones waitin’ to see a district die, because from time to time a pickup would strain up the hill with men in suits who showed foreigners around – foreigners who had big plans for this little crevice in the island based on what their satellites could see from all the way up in space.
My mother said government treat River Gut like a place lost in the cracks between two parishes. Plans to build a school were dismissed. Farmland turned into ‘access routes’ for when the earth-moving trucks would arrive. Come election time politicians pass through and pay for a round of drinks down at the bar and Riggs himself would buss big laugh with them. But as soon as they gone, Riggs would tell his customers that ‘a ballot box is a coffin for your common sense’. You can hardly blame Riggs. He sellin’ liquor. Riggs say what he need to say to keep people comin’ into the bar, even if it was only to cuss him out.
And once Riggs’ Bar kept the liquor flowin’, people could forget that the ‘Mineral Development Zone’ sign at the foot of the hill meant that sooner or later – if the mechanical eye in the sky said the dirt was worth it – bulldozers could come scrape our district off the face of the earth. Those are the things that should make people sweat, but instead, it was Mumma Dell name why everybody shut up braps.
I hurried up the hill ‘cause people say in Jamaica night come to River Gut before it spread across the island. The single streetlight halfway up the hill switched itself on. Fog from Guy’s Hill crawled across the ravine to catch me on the main road. It vanished when I hurried through it and reappeared behind me like a spirit, so I couldn’t see where I was goin’ or comin’ from. Well, I was so busy thinkin’ about how Miss Warren was goin’ to kill me, I didn’t even see the man under the streetlight smokin’.
Well, look. I am not the person you must call to on the street if I can’t see your face, so I took off runnin’ up the road like a madman with Mrs Warren hardough bread threatenin’ to buss the plastic bag and roll back down the hill. The voice called out again, louder this time.
‘You goin’ the wrong way! Mind you break your foot in a pothole!’
Well, I didn’t give one shit, because maybe if ambulance carry me up the hill that night then Shepherd Mother would have some mercy. Same time, the gravelly voice shout out again:
‘I can tell you ‘bout Mumma Dell!’
I wheel ‘round and walk back in the direction of the voice. I can’t tell you where that kinda bravery come from but I think I was about to cut through a fog of a different kind. The man’s cigarette was soaked by the time I got back to him. I saw the spark go out. I’d seen him before, a labourer, one of those who appear in the district in full gear: construction helmet, steel-toe boot and safety vest, but only end up cuttin’ grass to feed goat. When he spoke, he had a few teeth missing, either from a street fight or a battle with poor hygiene.
‘You can’t take chances with the main road in the fog, yout’. Taxi driver mad. We have to walk alongside the train line. People call me Struggler. I know Mrs Warren. Follow me.’
He turned toward the train tracks, shoutin’ over his shoulder.
‘Keep up if you want to hear who is Mumma Dell!’
I followed at a distance. By this time it was pitch-black night mixed with fog. Struggler was trying to light the cigarette again. The flashes showed me where he turned, like an indicator. Well, as soon as I could see the deep bend in the train tracks, I realized that this route would take us right past the pear tree. All of a sudden there was a lump in my throat like a chunk of avocado left over from the dream. All I could see in my head was my mother rollin’ on the church floor, eyeballs white; Mumma Dell name comin’ out of her mouth with froth behind it.
After a while Struggler gave up on the lighter so I had to follow the sound of his boots crunchin’ gravel. He stopped – and through the fog there it was: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, a thirty-foot tall shadow on the other side of the tracks. I called out to him.
‘Big man, this is the worst place – ‘
‘Best place to pick pear’, his voice came back to me before I could finish.
‘Struggler, you mad?’
‘No. You ‘fraid?’
I swear the man could hear the fear of God comin’ out between my teeth.
‘Mrs Warren waitin’ on me – ‘
He kissed his teeth and stepped over the fence. My heart turned into a living drum. He took off his helmet, flipped it and slipped a rope through the adjustable parts while talkin’.
‘Shepherd Mother been waitin’ for your father to come back home long time now. So she know ‘bout waitin’. So come help me before the night get darker. Your phone have flashlight?’
He shinnied up the tree. In two minutes the helmet came down, full of avocados. He called out.
‘See a crocus bag under the tree. Get it.’
‘You still don’t tell me ‘bout Mumma Dell’, I shouted back.
‘Miguel, stop waste time. We cannot talk ‘bout that right now. Business is business.’
From far down in the valley, a long whistle. Bauxite train. Struggler sounded impatient now.
‘Miguel! Cross over the damn fence before somebody see you talkin’ to a tree and go tell Mrs Warren. I give you five bills.’
‘You have five hundred dollar to give anybody? Bet you don’t even pay your bar bill.’
‘Look here yout’. Struggler is jus’ a name. I’m a businessman. I sell pear.’
‘Nobody goin’ buy pear from you, Struggler. River Gut people don’t eat from this tree.’
He laughed out loud from the branches and made the tree shake.
‘Miguel . . . everybody in River Gut eat from this tree. They just don’t know. I sell pear by the roadside comin’ in from St Mary. Market vendor love my pear. Them buy the whole bag. And guess where they sell it back? River Gut Market. People believe they eatin’ St Mary pear. No sah. My goods are proudly grown right here in River Gut, St Catherine. So . . . you want the money or not?’
I crossed the train tracks and slipped through the barbwire fence. The train whistle was louder now. We packed ‘bout two dozen avocadoes in the bag and jumped back over the fence. I couldn’t wait to go home, but Struggler wasn’t in any hurry. He twisted off the top of a pear and passed the rest to me. I ate the damn thing and it was more delicious than the one in the dream, even without a single grain of salt. Struggler watched me gobblin’ down the avocado. He leaned against the column of the postal agency and flashed the lighter again. The cigarette catch fire at the same time there was a vibration under my sneakers.
‘Move, Miguel . . . train comin’’, he said, smoke hangin’ on to his words.
I stepped across to him. ‘Tell me ‘bout Mumma Dell, now!’ The rumble of the comin’ train was makin’ me shout.
‘You want to hear ‘bout Mumma Dell?’
Struggler flipped the cigarette butt into the gravel. He leaned towards me and shouted.
‘Mumma Dell is a ghost . . . a duppy . . . the wickedest one in River Gut!’
That’s when the whole place exploded with full light and sound as the train burst through the bush, pushin’ away night and fog. I could see his face fully now. He was missin’ more teeth than I thought and his face had peaks and valleys like Blue Mountain range. The train clattered past, draggin’ a line of empty bauxite buckets. Heat and diesel up my nose, his words slammin’ into my eardrums.
‘And that pear tree . . . is Mumma pear tree.’
When the last of the bauxite buckets was passin’ behind me, Struggler pointed across the track and hollered out: ‘Look! Look! See Mumma under the tree!’ Well, by the time I whip ‘round to look, Struggler grab the big bag with two dozen pear and hop on the back of the damn train. I took off runnin’ but I can’t tell you if I was runnin’ from Mumma Dell or runnin’ to get my goddamn five hundred dollars, but you shoulda see me chasin’ that train with Struggler on the back of it laughin’.
‘Run Miguel, run! Don’t make Mumma duppy ketch you! Run! Hah-haw! You fast like Usain to rass. Run my yout’!’
But the more I run, the more I couldn’t catch the train and I wondered if I was dreamin’ because my feet heavy all of a sudden and my chest didn’t feel like mine and I left Miss Warren bread under Mumma Dell pear tree and maybe my spirit had taken a stroll down the hill and all I needed to do was go back into my body and wake up in my nice, warm bed. But Struggler laughin’ was real and the scam was real and I wish he would drop off the damn train so I could fling the avocadoes down the gully and take my five hundred dollars.
Well that was wishful thinkin’ because soon the warning lights on the back of the train turned into orange dots in the distance and left me runnin’ in the dark with only my cell phone flashlight. The red glow from the Siphon1 tower came through the fog to show me a dozen Johncrows on top of it, lookin’ down at the poor fool who dared raid Mumma Dell pear tree.
Well, I just kept runnin’ up the slope and when I burst into the yard Mrs Warren was on the verandah with a hurricane lamp waitin’. She hear me comin’ from far, so she run like I was the Prodigal with tears comin’ down her face and hug me tight and ask where the hell I was, and in the middle of gaspin’ for breath I just come right out and tell her about Brother Anthony and Struggler and eating the pear and she cry out to Jesus and walk me straight into the kitchen to give me some Anointed Water from Sweetwater River with Leaf of Life and plenty prayers inside it. And I tell her about the bread and she said never mind because now Mumma Dell have one more reason to leave us alone.
And later I find the strength to ask her who is Mumma Dell and she told me ‘Never mind, Miguel, sleep.’ So I close my eyes and pretend to snore and of course she come sit down by the bed and whisper the entire story because a boy’s spirit understand things better than his brain.
‘Mumma Dell is your grandmother, Miguel. She used to live in that two-storey house over the hill. She owned land from here down to the market. Government promise her royalties if they find bauxite on her land, so Mumma Dell allow them to dig up the whole community. People would say Mumma Dell selfish but never to her face because those days she was the biggest reader-woman in River Gut. To this day people still owe her de Laurence money.’
Mrs Warren stopped talkin’. She took a deep breath like she had been runnin’ for ten years and just needed to lay her burdens down.
‘Miguel. Mumma Dell get sick and dead before she see one cent from government. Since then, every night my spirit take a walk down to the train line. Every night I see Mumma Dell in her burial clothes stand up under the pear tree with the bush up to her waist. Every night I shout out: ‘Mumma Dell, what you want from me? And she just stand there pointin’ to the ground like she showin’ me something over in the bush. So from time to time I send a few church brothers to go look where she pointin’ in the dream and they don’t find anything. And by the next night there she is again pointin’ at a different spot wearin’ the white frock and gold gloves I sew for a burial that never took place.’
Well, I was listenin’ to Mrs Warren with my eyes closed tight, even though I was nowhere near sleep. Turns out that Mumma Dell funeral was the worst send-off ever. See, Mumma Dell left clear instructions about how she wanted to be sent off to Glory. The abeng was to be sounded when the hearse arrived and there was to be a long Celebration Table at the Church of the Living Drum with gold carnations and white candles, because white is purity and gold is for the diadem she would get from the Most High himself.
But God send grey clouds and rain the day of the funeral and the driver of the hearse refused to come all the way up the hill because of all the potholes in the main road. So instead of the big send-off, Shepherd Mother conducted her mother-in-law funeral service under a little tent by the train tracks since the bauxite train don’t run on Sat’days. Then worse, when the service was over, Shepherd Mother ask Brother Anthony to use his handcart contraption – customized with metal wheels to fit the train track – to transport the casket down the hill to meet the hearse. My father didn’t like this idea but his wife was the law.
Well, Brother Anthony was a professional at takin’ goods down to the market via the train line, but the man didn’t have much experience as a one-man pallbearer. So when the handcart take off down the hill and pick up speed, Brother Anthony couldn’t find brake or skill to navigate the deep corner, so the handcart escape from him in the vicinity of the postal agency. It take a sharp turn, the casket launch sideways off the contraption and Mumma Dell fly out of the box, flip over the barbwire fence and land somewhere in the bush. People run and scream and go back home because it’s a bad sign when obeah-worker refuse to go to boneyard.
I could hear Mrs Warren voice trembling as she was finishin’ up the story.
‘Miguel, we search the bush and we call police and we search again the whole night but we couldn’t find Mumma Dell. She is demanding the send-off that she ask for. But we have to find her first. Your father leave River Gut a few months after. He said I disrespect his mother in life and death. Said a Maroon woman whose ancestors created River Gut settlement with the ancient Tainos deserved better. But I did what I could Miguel.’
Well, look. I think my mother deserved better as well, so on my way to school next morning I stop by the postal agency in the flesh and tell Sister Ferguson that everybody in River Gut eat Mumma Dell pear. So of course the news spread up the slope and three nights straight that week church pack and people drop extra offering for a dose of Shepherd Mother Anointed Water with Leaf of Life. And when I watched Zion people dancing and singin’ around the Deliverance Table that week, I figured that maybe River Gut was asleep and somebody was goin’ to have to call the spirit back into it.
So because social media more powerful than obeah, I borrow Mrs Warren phone and post a video of Struggler up in the tree in the fog and the darkness with the red glow from the cell phone tower, and I put a caption: ‘Mumma Dell Duppy Picking Pear in St Catherine’. Well of course, the whole thing go viral. Everybody start post Mumma memes and fake videos. People swear they see Mumma Dell all over Jamaica and even Photoshop casket on the train tracks to prove it.
Then one day that year during some serious October rain, I was shelterin’ under the piazza in front of Riggs’ Wholesale listening to people talkin’ how Mumma videos put River Gut back on the map. Well, in two-twos a vehicle pull up and a white lady went into the bar across the street with a cameraman behind her. She was from Canada and wanted to do a story about River Gut and Mumma Dell.
Of course, River Gut famous now, so everybody at the bar wanted to talk ‘bout Mumma Dell on camera, but I step over to the bar quick and called from outside to let her know I am Mumma grandson and I could show her the pear tree if she want.
So you shoulda see me leading a whole crowd of River Gut people down to the pear tree.
Nobody seemed to mind standing in the rain while the bauxite train rumbled between the postal agency and the pear tree. But even after the last bucket disappeared, the ground was still shakin’ and people start scatter because all of a sudden, on the other side of the fence, the earth just opened up and the thirty-foot pear tree disappeared down into it in front of everybody and right away the entire hillside was sliding away and draggin’ the barbwire fence with it, while the foreign people catchin’ all this noise and calamity on camera.
And that is how we found Mumma Dell after ten years, after a landslide, in an underground cave, resting beside ancient bones in her modern clothes. And depending on who you ask in River Gut these days, they will tell you either the story of how the sign at the bottom of the hill turned from Mineral Development Zone to World Heritage Site because those ancient bones belonged to the last of the island’s Tainos, or maybe a man like Riggs’ will serve you a drink across the counter and tell you that River Gut is still on the map only because government pay more attention to the dead than to the living.
Image © ewen and donabel