For the Love of a Cactus
Elikem Enyo Annan
God is in everything. That’s what I tell Casey.
The sweetness of a moist kiss on the ear lobe from licensed lips, that’s God. The sight of a pregnant cockroach in travail with its egg sack on its abdomen, that’s God. A wake of vultures picking and pulling at the putrid carcass of a lion in their gratitude for dinner, that’s God. I show Casey a delicate slice of misty-water-coloured frost, shared between four blades of grass in the early morning, just before the sun’s rays kiss the ground. “There’s God,” I say. “He is here.”
She rarely answers. Mostly stares at me. And shakes her head. “Worship the Creator. Not the creature.”
She thinks I am heathen.
But she loves me. That’s what I feel. Cause she knows me. And she married me. And she tries to change how I think. About God mostly. And she knows I have the Thing in my blood. Though we’ve never talked about it. I think everyone sees it but most don’t say anything. So she must know. I don’t feel it though. I just go by what people tell me. They say it’s obvious in the way I walk. And in the way I talk. They say it’s because I am different from their normal men. It’s just the way I am. That’s what they say.
Maresca Walters had a bad lisp. She was a high school classmate of mine. She did not think I was normal so she ridiculed me. She interrupted my friend Tunny T, who was enjoying my story about soft creamy worms in little red, ripe sugar-plums – how juicy and sweet they were if you shut your eyes, as if she had an urgent question of parliamentary importance.
“A how him chat so, saafy saafy.”
She whispered it noisily, then laughed. Not a real laugh; a mirthless one. A laugh like she was throwing a live crab in boiling water on a stove top.
Tunny T did not answer. But he knew. He tried to change me too. He sometimes told me how I should not speak. Or should not laugh. Or should not walk. But he never ever mentioned the Thing in my blood. So I took it that he loved me. And in return I tried to persuade him to love the things I loved. To read the books I read. To sing on the streets if he felt like it. To laugh aloud with himself, even if the joke was in his own head. To cry if he was hurt. And not care if Maresca saw.
If I did not have the Thing in my blood, I might have served Maresca a generous helping of her own bile. I would have aped and laughed her to scorn – she had the most twisted lisp one had ever heard. It wasn’t just the S or C sound. She had an extra distortion where her short As sounded like Os. When she said ‘start’ it came out as ‘sthort.’ And her short Os sounded like something else. Like trying to use the pronunciation key in the Oxford Dictionary. And she had a problem with how I spoke.
I’m sure Casey knows about the Thing in my blood. But there is a secret I keep from her. I have been infected with the Cytoplasmic Ravage. I cannot tell her because she will not handle it well. She will have questions. How did I get it? Did I give it to her? How long do I have left to live? What will she do when I am gone? How will I afford the medication? What if I gave it to her? What will her church folk say? And I don’t know how I got it. Many people with the Thing in their blood get the Cytoplasmic Ravage.
But what’s done is done.
I am glad Mum is not here to see it. I still tell her about it though. I let her know what I go through. I help her to understand what I feel even though she is on the other side. She’ll understand some of it because she had her own share of pain before cancer took her out. Mum became eighty ounces of ash one year ago. I don’t wish to revisit that place right now. But she suffered. When she finally pierced the veil and stepped into the universe unknown where spirits find light, I blessed her. She needed to go. This place was no longer a home to her. I told her to ride the sun each morning and kiss me in the beam of the sunrise. The sun looks upon me in the mornings. I sleep towards the window. Casey dislikes when the sun forces her up. I tell her I need to rise with the sun. Like the rest of diurnal nature. Mum might be disappointed if she doesn’t greet me in the mornings, within the sun’s virgin rays. I lay there, awake, in receptive intercourse with the first light of day – letting it seep into my soul, sweep out the darkness of night, fill me with radiance for the day’s journey, so that I may spend the day smiling, like the sun. The rays slowly spread and shift, casting shadows on my bed and on my wall. They light on my cactus. On the window sill. I watch them move. They do not linger. In minutes they are gone.
I have always loved the cactus; its spirit, its introverted aloofness, its independence. Like it knows something. Something the rest of us do not. It doesn’t seem to care what happens around it. It reacts to nothing. I can’t affect its life. But I was determined to do so. Cause that is what we do. We try to change the things we love. Cause different is never just different. Love thrives on symmetry. And lovers need sameness. I thought so.
Freckles was certainly different from other plants. I called her Freckles because she had the most interesting brown spots along her green bulbous body, among the prickles. Freckles lived as if life was not for living. She never appeared to grow. She sat or stood there, without a breath, unmoving, unchanging, with her lush green bulb, sharp prickles, and mysterious brown spots. She was simply content to be beautiful, whether anyone knew it or not – a steadfast curious globe in her own world. But all the curiosity was mine. Freckles couldn’t have cared less. Because maybe she did know better. Cause one day you fancy she had grown. She seemed bigger. Rounder. More pregnant. Then one day you notice what looked like a smaller bulb peeping out from her side. Then one day, another from another side. Almost nonchalantly. Freckles was living her life as if I did not exist. As if Freckles herself did not exist. As if she never saw the sun rise in the mornings. As if she never missed the sun at night. As if I never ever watered her. And fed her. Freckles had no leaves. Nothing to wave. Nothing to flutter in the wind, to wag in a message of gratitude. Nothing.
Then after years, Freckles came to life with blooming ferocity. One bloom of reddish pinkish orange appeared. Then another. Then another. Then soon Freckles was a carnation carnival. Her transformation was sudden and swift. And magical. But Freckles never really changed. There was still a spirit of quietude and simplicity. Her flowers, though bright and communicative, were delicate and sensitive. Engaging, but standoffish. Beaming, I showed her to Casey.
“God,” I said. “That’s him there. Beauty and magic in nature is God,” I told her.
“It’s only a cactus.” I cringed at her disinterest. “It’s not pretty. Not like a Bougainvillea.”
I did not take Casey on. Freckles was God. Her story was God.
No life form is ugly to me. But I know that is just me; my appreciation of cosmic artistry. There is clearly deliberateness in everything. Art is never ugly. Spirits are ugly. Man-made constructs are ugly. Maybe Maresca’s mischievous cackle was ugly too. But a big red butt on a Baboon attracts its mate. It’s beautiful. And the nagging reverberant croak of a gravelly toad attracts its mate too. It’s beautiful. And termite mounds disguise ant-size acres and acres of hand-crafted houses with many mansions, built with the most exquisite engineering and architecture. They’re beautiful. And a beautiful thing must be appreciated. How can it be otherwise? But I know Casey feels differently. But it is her soul. She should feel what she feels.
Freckles’ flowering lasted for a year. And so did my obsession. But one day, new flowers did not grow where the old ones fell. Slowly, Freckles went silent again. I fancied, after that, that she began to look smaller. I could not have been sure. But it was true. And, within the next year, she wilted down into nothing and became a dried-up prickly brown monument to what she had meant to me over the years.
I cried when Freckles withered. Had she not been invulnerable; a stoic, unbothered by the world around her? When I moved her here and there, spinning her this way and that, she did not change. While other plants anxiously reach for the sun, Freckles stood tall in her shortness and wavered not in one direction or the other. And she bloomed when she was good and ready. And when it was all said and done, she ended this journey without so much as a heck. And yet she was mine. All mine. Knowing no other. Loving no other. Just me. Wanting nothing from me but to just be. Offering nothing to me but to just be. And suddenly I knew what it meant to truly love. It was how Mum had loved me. She had never ever said one word about the Thing in my blood. And she had never asked me to stop being. She had never asked me to speak differently. Or walk differently. Or grin a little less. Or to stop collecting sea shells on the sea shore. Freckles asked nothing of me. It was true love. That’s how I felt, as the flood of tears brought sudden clarity.
I would not part with her. I kept Freckles in her dried state. Waiting till I decided what use to make of the fossilising monument of my cactus – my non-requiting lover, my true lover, for so long.
Mum’s ash had once embodied her energy of love. It had once borne her life. And I thought it should continue to bear life. I take a wooden vase and churn Freckles’ fossil into its soil and mix in Mum’s ash. I add silvery grey sand from the Roaring River and plant a cactus in the soil. It looks like a young Freckles. I watch it grow. It is the incarnation of Mum. I feel her presence here. I don’t know when Mum will bloom. But it would be nice to see her smile. In red and orange and pink. I will be at peace if I know that Mum is happy on the other side.
My friend Bernie, or Captain B, as I sometimes called him, was infected with the Cytoplasmic Ravage long before I was. I don’t know how he got it though. I did not want to know because it would not change anything. He would still be the same Bernie to me, no matter what. Many people who have it will not reveal it, until it kills them. I am one of those. Cause our society is not ready to look at it just yet; my wife is not ready to look at it just yet. But that is not strange. We shut our eyes to many things. Like everybody else, I guess. We do not look at mental illness. We pretend not to see it. Why would we look at this? No-one here goes to see a psychiatrist because no-one wants to discover, or having it discovered, believe that he has a mental illness. Cause it is not an illness. It is a curse. It’s madness.
Casey believes madness is all God’s judgment. Maybe for sins someone committed. She spoke of the lady who used to be at the public hospital, walking around on the grounds, night and day, in nothing but a tattered skirt and a bra. She would also walk about in the town, stopping at restaurants and begging for food. Her legend was that she was once a prostitute and that it was judgment for sin that drove her mad. No-one knew her name so they just called her ‘The Mad Prostitute Girl.’ God had had enough of the looseness of The Mad Prostitute Girl, so He struck her with madness. Can’t imagine that it solved the problem though. But Casey believes it.
But, at least, if people thought I was mentally ill, I might get an endearing identity. The Cytoplasmic Ravage does not get legendary folk tales. Bernie did not. He was scorned. And before I die, even with the way he did, I will honour him. For he knew what it felt like to be free.
Captain B and I were unlikely friends. I had no business being in his world. He lived just down the road from me. He must have seen me enough to know that I had the Thing in my blood. But we became friends because the universe appointed it. And that is all. I had begun to feel like my blood had foreclosed my circle of friends. Some of them had the Thing too. Tunny T didn’t, but others did. I assume some worse than I did. I don’t see it. I don’t know the signs to look for. They all seem normal to me. But their lives are hell. People tease them. And chase them with sticks. That’s how I know. The level of public derision is my barometer of its intensity – who has it more; who has it less. At least it appeared I had it less than some. I felt an ounce better. Any means of feeling more accepted was a gift, even at the expense of my very friends. They were not going anywhere. It was hard enough for them to make friends of their own. But Bernie gave me another chance to be friends with one of the accepted ones. And to pretend to be normal by that association. And he was a good four years older. Almost a man.
At 17, Bernie had just started to groom his locks. They were short and well kept. I was fascinated with the free-spirited, don’t-give-a-piss character of the boys who wore the dreaded locks. And fascinated with the challenge of the long, eloquent mane. And fascinated with the politics of their conspicuous walk through the world, where their very presence drew attention, evoked exaggerated reaction, and required explanation they had no intention of giving. Bernie reminded me of my father, who, by then, had abandoned us long enough to be forgotten. He was just as handsome. He had the same beautiful charcoal skin. Big nose like a breadfruit-tree root; spreading out on either wing and arching upwards at the bridge in a defiant grab of attention, right there in the middle of his face. I thought with that nose he could sing opera. And his eyes were big, smiling eyes. Mischievous eyes too. Looked like he was always up to something. Which was not true. His eyes often told lies on his soul. But those lies drew people to him. I soon discovered that we had meaningful things in common. We both liked to eat spicy Bully Beef, with nuff Pickapeppa sauce, and garlic, and white rice for lunch. Or fried flour-dumplings. We called them cart-wheels because they were big, round and flat like truck-wheels, with tin-mackerel flash-out, yummily fried up in coconut oil with onions, scallions and thyme, and real Jamaican Scotch Bonnet pepper. Sometimes we threw some red and green bird peppers in it. So good we always got our ten fingers and our whole face in the action. We both could cook. And we would run a boat quite often at his house or mine. Bernie would invite nearby friends to join us. He had a unique way of giving the signal: “Yow, Massive, boat a run.” He would shout like a town-crier. Once or twice. I looked around expectantly till I saw the Massive emerging from the flanks, like Robin Hood’s merry men. Thus, I got to hang out with bigger boys, who would not dare be seen with me otherwise.
We both liked soursop juice. Bernie thought it made his back strong. For the girls, you see. I just loved the taste and texture. We discovered that we both loved watching The Jeffersons on TV. Discovered that we both loved the ocean and the natural world. Discovered that we were both athletes. Bernie played cricket for the high school under-18 team. I didn’t know. I hated cricket. He knew that I played football, but thought I was mediocre. I was. He thought I was a great athlete though. I was. Discovered that we both loved the mixed ‘Indian Royal’ girls. And while I had a girl in my class that I was talking to, Bernie was sleeping with a few girls in the school, including one of the prettiest girls in the second form. Bernie only messed with younger girls. I did not judge. Younger girls willingly messed with older boys too.
Years later, when Bernie’s affliction with the Cytoplasmic Ravage became manifest, the disease was little known, and even less understood. It still is. That was about 1992, and we were both grown, almost ‘gray back,’ men by then. I noticed slow changes with him that meant nothing to me. On weekends, he seemed more fatigued than normal; irritable too, and reluctant to hang out. His countenance was definitely changing. Could have been his skin. It seemed to be constantly breaking out into things like boils. Bumpy, blistery things. On his face. His arms. His back. His chest. They ravaged his skin. Made it scabby and welty. As if it had returned to the clay from which it was made. And it was not shed. It stuck there. Like a worn-out leather jacket, all cracked and weather-beaten. I told Casey. She said his wife should bathe him in Comfrey and Aloe. And Lignum Vitae. And Leaf of Life. But his wife was never there those days. So I asked Casey to get some for him. Casey’s family was from the Darliston mountains. They knew every tree, bush and herb that existed. Her grand-uncle Zebby was close to 100 years old. He knew the herbal cure for every ill there was. Casey went to look for Bernie with her prescription of trees and herbs. She said he looked like a frog had spat Cocobay on him – making his skin look like the frog’s back. True. His skin did look like the frog’s back. When dry. I told Bernie I would take him to the Darliston hills. The fresh air and uncorrupted earth would do him good. I really hoped he could see Uncle Zebby. He said no. But he did agree to take baths in the Comfrey and Lignum Vitae and Leaf of Life and Aloe.
I did encounter his wife at his house one day. She did not look pleased to see me. Her countenance was just as sad as his. I didn’t think Bernie’s wife liked me. So I stayed away. I stopped checking on him for a while. Besides, our interactions had grown forced. He was always happy to see me, but now he appeared not to be able to tolerate too much intrusion into his space. And Casey had become suspicious – of something. She wanted me to stay away from it. She wanted nothing to do with sin and corruption. The rumours had started. And the whispers. People said Bernie had the new deadly disease that was catching. Casey saw and heard some of it. Bernie’s mum and brothers were eyed suspiciously in the supermarkets. Bernie too. People huddled – in twos and threes, even one alone would try to huddle as if someone else was there, hand over mouth – and would sussu sussu all the gossip they’d heard, using pouted lips to point surreptitiously. People avoided them in the streets like they were the resurrected dead from the Cholera Cemetery. Even at church. My friend’s interface with the world had changed. The ‘Massive’ avoided him. And now I mostly observed him from a distance. His skin did clear up after a while. I could tell even from my window. I wondered if it meant the end of the disease. With hope. Every now and again, I saw him on the road, or he would stop by our house – Casey said I should speak to him at the gate, and keep him there. I complied. It was hard. He was still slowly losing weight. I didn’t ask him what it was. But I knew he did not go to the doctor much. His kind did not believe in the miracle of modern medicine so much as the miracle of the green things on the earth.
And then it hit me that I would lose him. Hit hard too. Captain B had been my silver moon. When I needed identity and faith. When my title to this earthly space was questionable. And slowly the preview of his departure played out in my mind, and life. I withdrew from him more deliberately. Small things reminded me of him. I hid from the memories.
I went back to the old mango tree I used to sit in by my lonesome as a child. The branches were still the same. It had been a long time since I had climbed it. But it still allowed me to cradle myself in the womb of its interlocking boughs. I went early when the sun was coming up. And I sat and thought. And thought. Would I still have society? This man had opened up society to a boy. When society did not want that boy. He had tricked them. Around him, they saw me as worthy. When he spoke to me, they spoke to me. I felt accepted. I had figured early on that it was a lie, but I was happy in it. Now, they had left him to his scorn. And what of me?
The last time I saw him was at the beach. In Greenfield’s. He was alone. Sitting on the sand, looking out into the ocean. I found it suspiciously pre-planned that we had been directed to the ocean at the same time. It was early in the morning – when the water is warm and the beach is empty of people. Before he saw me, I stood watching him and the ocean. There was an aura of serenity to his being, and to the ocean too. It, the latter, was a satiny blue blanket masking its unseen underworld, I thought. And all at once, I didn’t like the ocean. It seemed like a lying hypocrite to me. Not limitless and unending as it pretended, but bounded by something, having no promise beyond what the eyes beheld, and going nowhere. I wondered what secrets it hid with its enticing mask of blue. What skeletons lay beneath it?
I wondered if Bernie felt the same as he looked out. He might not have been recognizable to anyone. That wasn’t Captain B. But I knew the clothes he was wearing. He was fully dressed. No swim trunks. I went up to him. He looked into my eyes – as if to see my soul. Deeply. Weakly. Suspiciously. As if with a message. That wasn’t him. It wasn’t him. I turned towards the ocean. He spoke first. He asked me how I had been. I barely answered though. I was distracted. I sat down beside him. And for a while, we both looked out towards the ocean. The stillness was a story. I could hear the waves slapping the sand, frothing and spitting, as if the sea suddenly changed character when it hit the shore, maybe showing its true character then, at the end. No one else was around. The sun had barely just risen over the mountain backdrop. The wind was normal, but somehow noisy in the stillness. It gently whooood like an owl. In the clear blue water I spied a lone fish swimming about the shore, to and fro, back and forth, refusing to continue its journey, as if it had lost direction. Forgetting where its school was, maybe.
I felt myself tearing up. Bernie was writing in the sand with his big toe. I told him goodbye and got up to leave. Again, he looked into my soul. And in that moment I knew the story, and how it would end. I knew he felt alone. I wanted to tell him that I was still the same. That I had not abandoned him. I had not intended to. Even my thoughts then were babbling and unconvincing. I wanted to say thanks. I wanted to confess that I had the Thing in my blood. That I knew he knew. Get it out in the open. But I couldn’t talk about it. That he had made it okay for me to be me. I wanted to tell him that the rumours didn’t matter and the people didn’t matter. I wanted to tell him that I loved him. As he was. As he is. Even if the world didn’t understand him. And couldn’t change him. And thank him for loving me as I am. Even if the world scorned me for being born this way. It was strange that he had never ever tried to change anything about me. Even when people called me scornful names. He stood by me as if he did not understand. Strange that I had not wanted him to be like me. To make me more comfortable with myself. I hugged him and wept. Me. Wept. On his shoulder. On his shoulder. And he did nothing. He stared out to sea. And with weak hands, and scratchy, dry and cold palms, he tried to hold my hands. I saw blisters all over him. I told him I had to go. I left. I did not see his face as I left. I wept all the way home.
Later that morning, a fisherman on his way back from sea saw Bernie’s body floating at the mouth of the cave – Grey Beard’s Cave right there at the far corner of the shore, where the waves slash and thrash in wrath against rugged stiletto rocks. I was at peace. He wanted to go. I let him go. I knew he would return, for he had loved with his whole heart and being. How could such love be contained in the vacuum of unknown realms? That love was like the Selaginella; bound to resurrect in due season.
Casey cried for him. She said his soul was lost. There was no forgiveness for his sin.
“Sin? What sin?”
I told her she was wrong. Against whom had he sinned? Was he wrong for desiring to escape this? Whom had he hurt? He had loved himself and his life. Enough to end his interminable suffering. I told her that she and her church were making up the rules.
“Thou shalt not kill. That’s the rule.”
I was not convinced. There were many exceptions to that rule.
“The rule does not complain when we kill in self-defence, does it? The rule does not complain when the state kills as punishment, does it? The rule only seems preoccupied with the killing of others. No? Where did it say you cannot end your own life? And really, Bernie didn’t kill himself. The ocean killed him. Thou shall not allow oneself to be killed then?” I pressed her. “So those who smoke and die of lung cancer as a result – they break the rule? Those who drive recklessly and die as a result – they break the rule too?”
“They can repent before they go.”
“Oh? So God only forgives those who ask for it? I thought he forgave those with a contrite heart. Who has a more contrite heart than a man brought to the brink of life – who must painfully say goodbye to everything he knows, everything he ever loved; who must dive into the unknown, willing himself to believe that there is something better, less painful, there awaiting? But not knowing for sure. That’s a sad man. I believe that’s a contrite man. No-one goes joyfully. Even the man who makes peace with the journey. There is no evil in him then. Cause the world he is leaving behind becomes irrelevant.”
But she was not convinced. She said his soul would burn in hell.
“Hell? What hell? Fire purifies,” I told her.
As hot as she thought the fires of that hell would be, I told her that he would be renewed, his body would be a pile of ash and black smoke before one could blink. Like Mum. The pure black smoke of her soul had wafted up into the heavens in a second. And now she lived in purity.
Hell? Casey made me angry. He had lived in hell. A vindictive fire in the incorporeal realms was a mercy compared to what he had lived here. The man had suffered without hope. He had been tortured and could identify no torturer. Hell? Let him go to that hell then. It has to be a way better choice.
Casey was wrong. She don’t know. Casey don’t know nothing. She don’t even know God. Her God.
But I let her be. Don’t need her to change. Not no more.
Elikem Enyo Annan is a Caribbean American writer. He has been longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and is the author of ‘Tapas To Go: 101 Ten-word Stories About Life in These United States’. When not writing fiction, he moonlights as an attorney, an expert in diversity and inclusion, and a rights advocate.
*Illustration: ‘fLOwer bOy’ by Sef Adeola.