They walked briskly through the arched doors and down the stairs, betraying any signs of fatigue that would have been expected following the previous 20 hours. It had been an uncertain night, but it was finally over just before 5am. The army officer standing guard saluted as they exited. Eloise nodded and moved towards the black sedan with tinted windows, shadowed closely by her ever-vigilant security detail, Sargent Phillip. At the vehicle, her eyes searched out the mountains in the distance, and she felt a glimmer of serenity as the first signs of daylight peaked over the lush green. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, taking in the crisp morning air. Without traffic, it felt good to ingest clean air after being enclosed for so long.
“Well done, Sargent,” she declared as they got in the car. “We got them. Whoever has been shielding these criminals, they will be sweating bricks this morning. It’s only a matter of time before we find out who it is.”
They started driving but didn’t get very far before Eloise saw the lean build of Thimble standing slightly out of view behind some large garbage bags next to one of the restaurants on the street. As their eyes met, he nodded at Eloise and brought his hands from behind his back, revealing an envelope.
“Stop, Sargent,” she blurted out, reaching for the door handle. She walked towards the bearded man standing in the shadows. He wore a blue tracksuit, slightly too thick for the Caribbean heat.
“I didn’t expect to see you this quickly,” she remarked.
“It was easy. He was in an accident a few years ago so his DNA was on file,” he mumbled, his eyes darting around as he handed her the envelope.
“You’re certain it’s him?”
“Thank you,” she whispered, before reverting to her authoritative voice. “The funds will be wired later today.”
She turned towards the car, but he cleared his throat, forcing her to look at him again.
“Why are you paying out of your own pocket? This could have been tabled as the usual investigation. You know I’m discreet.”
Eloise raised her finger, silencing him.
“And I am a woman of integrity. I know you are discreet, but in my position, there are strays nipping at my heels daily. They will never have the opportunity.” Her nod indicated finality and she walked back to her vehicle.
Inside the car, she stared at the envelope, the contents searing a path to her heart. Her fingers itched to open it, but she could not. Not in the presence of anyone else. She closed her eyes, drifting back into the thoughts that had lurked below the surface for the last few days. The conversation with her brother kept playing in her head.
“I told you not to sign up to that blasted ancestor DNA foolishness. Now this charlatan wants what is ours. Making a claim on our land? Never! That belongs to the offspring of Dinah. Not him,” she had said.
“I don’t care about that land, and you never did. It’s been in dispute for 100 years. I want to know what happened to Donovan. I mean, how did he end up in the French army stationed in Senegal? Why did he settle in Barfleur? Why did he leave his wife and child?” her brother had argued.
“If it is true that Donovan abandoned Eloise and Dinah, then I care not about him! I care not about what he became! And I certainly care not about his seed!”
Her brother had come to her with the news that he’d been in communication with someone online claiming to be a descendant of their great-grandfather, Donovan. It stung. Their whole family believed that Donovan had perished at sea in 1919, yet this person, Claude, was insisting that Donovan was his ancestor and had married in 1920. If this was true, it could only mean one thing; Eloise felt as though a chisel was scraping mortar away from her very soul. Donovan had been married to her namesake, the first Eloise, and her life after the loss of her husband had not been easy. She raised her daughter, Dinah, alone, took on a patriarchal society and battled Donovan’s siblings over land meant for Dinah.
She thought about one of the many maxims her great-grandmother was known for and shook her head sadly.
Never yuh mind what life hand yuh. Tha’ can’t change. But yuh could mek tings better fe yuhself through hard wuk and watchin’ out fe yuh neighbour. Everybody rise together in dis here village.
From humble beginnings, the first Eloise had become the first local shopkeeper in her village and also opened its most successful day care, forcing the one managed by the Governor’s wife to close. Stories of her fierceness echoed down the generations. One of the more popular accounts was of the rat that made its way into the kitchen one Christmas Eve to sample the rum cake. According to lore, Dinah heard a loud ruckus in the kitchen. Running inside, she found her mother holding the rat by the tail and exacting vengeance with the short handle brush. No one dared cross her after that.
But Eloise also recalled the stories of how happy a person her ancestor had been and how she loved to dance. She was certain that if the first Eloise had ever learned that Donovan was alive it would have broken her.
The vibrations inside her jacket pocket jolted her alert. Eloise inhaled deeply as she reached for her phone. The pungent fragrance of citrus from the car freshener, mixed with the leather of the car interior, infiltrated her nostrils causing her to wrinkle her nose and sniff as she looked at the caller ID on her phone. She grimaced while answering. “Good morning, Prime Minister.”
Sargent Phillip turned off the radio to allow Eloise to hear clearly, but this was unnecessary as the booming voice of the Prime Minister reverberated throughout the vehicle.
“Mrs. Haynes, I want to convey my utmost appreciation to you for your work this morning. Truly commendable,” he bellowed.
“Thank you, sir,” she drawled. “We were pleased with the outcome.”
“Good! Good! I’m holding a press conference at noon. I expect you will be there?”
“Yes, of course, sir.”
As she hung up, she sucked her teeth. For months I told you we had a problem brewing with human traffickers. Now you want publicity when the outcome is good.
She could not wait to get home. She glared out the window at a group of young men sitting idly by the roadside. There was no good reason why they congregated around the burnt-out carcass of the old department store; she’d observed them every morning that week and it troubled her.
Her thoughts returned to the contents of the envelope and the possible evidence of her great-grandfather’s betrayal. She had kept a stoic expression all week, but it was painful. Despite an age gap of 90 years, Eloise felt very protective of her great-grandmother. She had passed away when Eloise was four, so she never truly got to know her, but the connection was there. She’d modelled her life off the lessons the first Eloise had passed down, and she could not imagine that Donovan would have abandoned this remarkable woman and their daughter. Now 100 years later, the final insult with the arrival of Claude. How did he even know there was land to be contested? What did Donovan tell his new family about the life he left behind? Her brother was correct; there were many questions, but the emotional turmoil was heavy.
Finally, the car navigated around a 50-year-old breadfruit tree and pulled over. Home. She’d always loved that the roof was the same shade of green as the leaves of the Moraceae standing majestically by the roadside.
“Thank you, Sargent,” she said, opening her door. “You should get some rest. It’s been a long night. Have someone collect me at 10am, please.”
Inside, she stood in her home office. Her daughter had left her favourite rainbow unicorn on the chair to remind Mommy that she was thinking about her. Eloise felt a sharp pang. Nathaniel appeared, holding a cup of tea for her, wearing the silver striped pyjamas she had gotten him for his birthday. She was ever grateful he remained a calming influence throughout the constant crises of her work.
“The news about the raid is starting to come in,” he said. “Well done. I figured you’d be home soon. How you feeling?”
She shrugged and reached for the cup. “Exhausted. I received the information from Thimble.”
Nathaniel moved in closer and hugged her.
“You wanna talk?”
“Haven’t looked at it yet. I’ll review it now, but you should go back to sleep. I need to do this alone. How are the littles?”
“Diana got a commendation for math. She wants to show you when she wakes.”
Eloise smiled sadly and lowered her head unto his shoulder.
Eloise picked up a photograph of herself as a baby being held by the first Eloise. Her great-grandmother would have been 90 at the time of that picture, but she looked 30 years younger: tall and statuesque, with angular features. Many commented that had she lived in another era she would have been a model, but from everything known about the woman, she would have scoffed at that suggestion. The most striking features were her eyes: wide, piercing grey eyes that told of a fierce determination to succeed. But there was also a twinkle revealing lines from decades of laughter. They were also eyes filled with love for her descendant as she looked over the two-month-old baby in her arms.
Whenever Eloise examined the picture, she wondered what her namesake had been thinking at that exact moment.
How could he? Why would he?
She glanced at the envelope. Now she would know for certain. She hesitated. She had a desperate hope that the DNA would expose her “cousin” as a fraud. She needed it to be so, for the sake of her ancestors. Her fingers trembled uncharacteristically as she tore the envelope open, gingerly lifting the paper inside. It was the moment of truth. She read the information, sighed heavily, and lowered her head.
Hugging her daughter’s toy and sitting down, Eloise composed herself. It would not do for the “Power Lady” to be weak. Shades of the first Eloise flowed through her, calming the tempest inside.
The past, for Eloise, was not found in history books. She lived amongst the memory of her ancestors, treating them as contemporaries while adopting their traditions and learning from their experiences. Having been brought up in a close family of aunts, uncles and grandparents passing down their traditions and experiences, she had learned everything about the last African in her family who had been brought in bondage to the shores and his fight for freedom. She was aware of her two ancestors, who were boat builders by day, but rum runners at night so that they could purchase land for their extended family when the plantocracy denied them access to homes. And she’d followed in her uncle’s footsteps to receive a university education and pursue a career in National Security.
“You have your namesake’s intestinal fortitude. If anyone can do it, you can,” he had counselled her all those years before. His words now took on a whole new purpose.
Eloise felt responsible for the legacy of her family; as the griot, she was the custodian and the conduit to the future. She could not allow Donovan to feature in their story any longer.
You will no longer shine amongst us. We will never speak your name again. There is nothing here for your descendant. I may not want that land, but he will never own a piece of it.
Her eyes resettled on the photograph.
Don’t wait on any prop’ty to be handed to yuh. Mek yuh own way in life.
These words had guided Eloise, passed down from mother to daughter, but they were now more meaningful.
The first Eloise had battled Donovan’s siblings for that land, after he had been missing for a year. She had wanted to protect Dinah. But when his siblings finally agreed to give a piece to “Donovan’s offspring,” as Dinah had been referred, Eloise wanted nothing to do with it. No one could understand why, since Donovan’s only offspring was Dinah.
Eloise frowned. She’d always assumed her namesake had been insulted at the suggestion that if she had children with someone else, they wouldn’t be entitled to the land. Instead, she’d worked hard her whole life and purchased separate land for Dinah, instructing her daughter to leave Donovan’s land alone.
Was it purely practicality, wanting to stay out of the dispute over Donovan’s land? The first Eloise was known to be practical. When Dinah’s husband strayed, everyone had told her to kick him out. Everyone except Eloise. That was a shock because she was so firm about people doing right. The words had been passed down in stories ever since.
“Who goin’ help yuh raise these six pickney?” she had asked her daughter. “He step out on yuh? Mek him suffer, but tek him back. Leh he beg yuh some more and spend he life beggin’ yuh forgiveness. He’ll never stray again, but at least that bastard came back to yuh.”
Eloise repeated the words out loud: “At least that bastard came back to you.” It had always been a contradiction of the woman to advise her daughter in that manner. But perhaps not. She stared into those wide grey eyes.
Did you know?
She stood up, still holding the cup of tea, took four paces, then returned to her seat. The emotions swirled around like waves in a hurricane, as she processed the competing thoughts. Finally, she accepted that she could not ignore the secrets of the past. They were too important. She looked at her watch showing a time of 6.23am and dialled.
“Hello,” her brother’s croaky voice answered after a few rings.
“You were right,” Eloise began. “We need to find out what happened. I suspect our ancestor was even more resilient than we realized. Call me later.”
Hanging up, Eloise leaned back in the chair. The sunlight seeping through the window brought a warmth she had not felt in a week. She sipped on her tea and smiled, repeating another phrase attributed to her namesake.
“All will be well.”
Carlisle Richardson is from St. Kitts and Nevis, and previously worked in the foreign service of that country. He is the author of the book, “Island Journeys: The Impact of the Island Way of Life at Home and Abroad” (Advantage, 2015, South Carolina). He currently lives in Australia and has embarked on his lifelong goal of writing fiction. To this end, he published his first short story “Unfinished Business” in Bookends, the literary section of The Jamaica Observer, in 2020.