Journey to Zion
Malica S. Willie
My community, my home, was a cool and easy place. Just a bunch of neighbours, related by blood or by choice, living peaceful, respectable lives. Dread, I learn a word back in secondary school. I think it describe us well — nexus. The teacher say that mean people have connection; like a circle, you know? Unbreakable. That was my community. When I and I was a youth, I had to carry water for the whole neighbourhood. No joke. My mother would send me and fetch water by the river, then my grandma, then my aunties and whoever else get the opportunity to lay eyes on me. But I never say no, I never complain. Is these same set of people who would give me a plate of food when I passing or give me 50 cents to go to school. Everybody had to do their part, dread; that’s just the way things was. So even as a grown man, I would do what I could to help out. Cut some grass here, climb a coconut tree there, fix a leak here, plough a field there…you get the drift, man. Support the nexus, yes-I!
I telling you all of that to say I and I lived in paradise. We were always kind and supported each other. It was nice to live there, man. Life was uncomplicated, you know? No worries about anything. Just cool and easy as the wind blows. But the good book did warn that everything was for a season, Rasta. Pay attention to the word.
Everybody in the neighbourhood had a hand in bringing me up. I and I never disrespect nobody. I was always helpful and never involve myself in any kind of trouble. And if ever a day one person hear I do something wrong, the whole community feeling it. I tell you about the link gason but I feel is more than that. Is like we share the same spirit. So I try my best to stay out of trouble. When I became old enough to look after myself, after I leave secondary school, I start working construction with some of my cousins. But dread, you know Rasta good with his hands, so I and I was planting a little provision on the side and supplying whoever wanted to eat. But boy that construction business used to tire me out. I had to travel right to the North, in the city, because that was where most of the jobs was. I used to get home dog-tired sometimes. The only thing I could do after a day’s work was take a relax session, you know? I would reach home, bathe, cook a little food, go by my mother just to let her know how things run and then go back to my place. Mind you, my house was in my mother yard self. It was nowhere far I had to go but you know how man does need his privacy. I would sit on the step in front of my house, roll up a spliff and take it in. Good weed, good relaxation, good meditation. Nothing better, I tell you. When I done finish smoke my weed, I eating my food and going and sleep.
Basically the same thing I used to get up to every weekday. But on weekends, I would tend to my plants, chill with the girl I was checking from down the road, light up the chalice and listen to Bob prophesy that I should get up, stand up for my rights. Sometimes my friends, cousins, and other family members would stop by me to say hello. One set of them would quarrel with me for smoking weed, the other set would join me. Either way it was a easy going situation. Nothing to complain about, you know? I was leading a peaceable life.
The whole time I was living in that little paradise, nothing too bad never happen. But padna, I telling you, everything have it season. The community was silent, dread. Most people was sleeping when we hear police and ambulance go up the road. Now ours was not the only community. We have several more small ones above us and as soon as we hear the sirens, we run outside. You know how small island people are; they in everybody business.
A padna of mine who does know people business before them find out what happen. He say the rich old widow who was living way up the hill in the community higher up got rob and kill. A masked man broke into her house, found her sleeping, and bludgeoned her with a hammer. When the person finish, he steal everything the lady have in her house. Boy, is only somebody that real modi that would do a thing like that! So communities near and far was real shook up. Everybody was trying to figure out if they knew somebody around that was so evil. We knew we had some little thieves about but we didn’t know we had cold-blooded murderers. The thieves we knew around didn’t even really break into houses. They would take things in people’s yards or on people’s farms to go and sell. But murder people? That was new to us.
That murderer steal our sleep. We became very restless. Everybody was thinking about the poor lady who lived alone in that house. She never did anything to nobody. Who could have such a cruel heart? We were just so broken and worried about the whole situation. We was hoping the police would solve the mystery and find out it wasn’t nobody from our area who do the crime. Because if was a neighbour, that reflecting bad on all of us, you know? It would cause what I call the nexus to crack. And when something like that crack, it not easy to repair.
So for months we mourned for the possibility of our guilt as well as for the little old lady. We feared for ourselves too. We were unsure of who to trust. So we began walking in pairs. Nobody slept at their home alone. If somebody’s husband, mother or whoever was going to come home late, the lone person would sit at somebody else home until their husband, mother or whoever return. People were afraid, I tell you, and uncomfortable about the whole thing. But when the police finally arrest somebody for the crime, the community became even more distress.
I and I was home listening to music on a Saturday afternoon. My girl and I were lying on a piece of cardboard in the front yard when armed police in full uniform just surround my house. I was so surprise to just see them fellas reach on me so. I was just lying there stiff like a bamboo, staring at them. I couldn’t say nothing but I could literally feel my girlfriend heart thumping against her chest. I wanted to put my arm around her but boy fear does paralyse man bad sometimes. But Rasta, even though my body wasn’t moving, I telling you straight, I not sure how but everything inside me was trembling. Dread, nothing so ever happen to me before. Is not like this was a everyday thing. I not lying, I was mad scared.
The police that was nearest to me shove his rifle in my ribs and ask me to get up. I didn’t even know how I make myself stand up but I stand and put my hands up like a robot. You know another police grab me, put my hands behind my back, and tell me I under arrest for murder? In my whole life I never been in trouble. The only thing I really do that’s unlawful is smoke a little weed. So when the fellas say murder, gasan, I start sweating how much. I start rambling about how I never kill nobody. I was just freaking out how bad. I trying to figure out who I kill and who say they see me kill and all kind of maji. My girlfriend self start screaming like a mad fowl until everybody around reach. My mother and some other women start quarrelling with the police, asking them if they mad. But the fellas was just doing what they came to do, you know?
The fellas arrest me, bring me to the police station, book me and everything so. Then…them padnas chop Rastaman dreads like they was plucking chicken. Boy, that burn me bad. Every lock I see fall on the ground, I feel it in my chest. Since I small, dreadlocks part of my identity, and they just come and cut off man spirit, man strength — like they is Delilah or something. But what could I do? Police is big man and I and I is small fry. After that, they take me and bring me to the big prison in the North. They put me in a isolated cell by myself and tell me I on remand until my court case. I try and explain to them fellas that I didn’t kill nobody but when folks make themselves deaf, nothing you say getting through. The cops say a eyewitness see me come out of the old lady window. So if eyewitness say so, it must be so, no?
They tell me I had to appear before a magistrate but every time they bring me to the courthouse, some bailiff or whatever you call him would come out to say the hearing postpone. So it end up being postpone; hearing after postponed hearing and all the while I stick in prison away from my people. And you know what? After a while, they just stop taking me to court. I was just in prison and that was that. No trial. I and I was just a prisoner.
Nobody in the community had money to hire fancy lawyer for me. I didn’t have no representation, dread. Even Jah seem to have forsake me. So I was just stick in prison. I was feeling like a trap animal, you know? It so strange how things go. I was raised in a place where nobody was really alone. People was always passing by to say hello, to sit on your step for a minute or two, to smoke a joint and wézonnen and all of a sudden, I just all by myself in a little box. Man, what a change. What a consuming silence. But to be honest, if it was just quiet I had to concern myself with, you know I could have deal? I man could have start to use the time for some proper meditation. Introspect? Retrospect! And even inspect. But the thing was the way they would rip me out of the silence. Man, that was the worse kind of horrible. Anyway, every now and then they would let one of my people visit me — if I look decent enough. Otherwise they would keep me in that cell or put me in a dark hole under the prison where they beat me and ask me to confess.
The beatings start probably three weeks after I reach prison. First time it happen, they take me out of the cell, bring me to a secluded beach. You know, one of these places with nobody around for miles? They put my head under water and keep lashing me with a whip they make with horse hide. And gason, every lash cut through my skin, and sea water was seeping into every wound! You don’t want to know how that feeling boy. I almost confess then and there. Because, to be honest, it was starting to cross my mind — the possibility of my guilt. I mean, why else would they beat me so?
Man, I never feel pain so. I could barely take a breath without hurting. I thought I was going to die but I didn’t confess. Because in the beginning, even though things had start to cross my mind, I was very sure I was innocent. I knew I could never kill nobody. I never even thought about killing anybody. But Rasta, after a couple months, my confidence in myself start to waver bad. With every beating I was feeling less and less like a innocent man.
The beatings went on for forever. I cannot rightly tell you if is months or years. But the beatings was frequent, you know? Regular. If they didn’t bring me to the beach, they would beat me in that dark dungeon or in my cell self. I was getting licks for so and they was always postponing my hearing. I felt like I was in hell man. I wanted to die. And I start to reason that suffering like that was only right if I was guilty. So I start to believe I murder that poor lady. The police would come to me and while they pounding on me like I was garbage, they describing the break-in and murder in detail. The descriptions became so clear in my head. I could easily fit myself at the scene of the crime. I even fell asleep with the image of the hammer in my hand. I saw myself bashing the lady’s brains in and I even tasted her blood as I continued hitting her with the hammer until she literally had no face. I remembered the details so clear. It must have been me. It was me. I break the back window, crawl through knowing exactly what I was going to do. It must have been me. Who else could it have been?
Despite my memory though. Despite my knowledge of my guilt. I remain silent for a good while. I refuse to confess. So they start bringing me to the beach even more often than before — twice, three times a day. Dread, everything was hurting me by then, even the hairs on my body. There was no area on me that was not bruised and bloody. Despite my wailings for them to stop, they just wouldn’t. They kept whipping me and I kept bringing up the faces of my community people in my head. These faces gave me a little strength, a little hope. But when the faces start to disappear, I realise things was getting crucial. These were the times I would just pass out. Rasta, you know, one time, I pass out right, and when I revive, them fellas was still beating me? That’s the day, with seawater burning my lungs, I scream as loud as I could able, “I do it. I do it. I kill the old lady. Is me that kill her.” And boy when I was saying that? With every fibre of my being I was feeling like I was telling the truth. If I had take one of those lie detector things on that day? I telling you it would have say the confession was real. Them fellas were good, man. They make me believe I and I, born peacemaker, was a killer.
As soon as I confess, the licks stop and boy, I was so relieve. I was happy not to be taken out like a animal and whipped till I lose consciousness. My confession felt like a victory. They just keep me in my cell, though every inch of my body was oozing with pus and blood. No doctor tend to me. I could barely move but at least the beatings stop. You don’t know how amazing it felt, despite the consuming pain, to not have people consistently beat you in your open wounds and then bathe you in salt water to worsen the agony. You don’t know how glorious it was to just lie in that box in total anguish, knowing there was no threat of further torture. Dread, I not sure if people can say that but I soak up my pain. I embrace that and I thank Jah Jah for his mercy. And when my night fevers create the illusion of my mother face? I was grateful for that too. When I was hallucinating I would become a small child again. I would rest my head in my mother bosom and feel her love seep into my gaping wounds. That was all I really had back then.
But to be real, the more I stay in that prison, the less worthy of life I was feeling. I was nothing. The man I was had been reduced to a cockroach. It’s amazing how people with all the power can just rip man from his life and break him down. It wasn’t easy at all, dread. When my outside wounds look like they were healing and thing, the guards who were bringing food in for me start to kick and shove me. I telling you, nothing coming easy. What they calling those people who get a sick kind of pleasure from hurting people again? I learn that word in primary school, man…sardies? Nah. sardis-tic? Yeah man, sardistic. These fellas were satisfying their sardistic tendencies every time they see me.
This was my life, man. I could do nothing but experience it. My hearing was postponed indefinitely after my confession. I had not been sentenced or anything, prison just get to be my home. But after a time they take me out of isolation. After being there for I don’t know how long, I was finally able to interact with other people. Boy, I was so glad to see other folks. I didn’t even care if they were mean or didn’t speak to me at all. It was just nice not to be stuck in my own head replaying the murder I confess to. You know what I mean? I even got a cellmate and made a couple of friends. You could almost say I was getting accustom to the awfulness of it all. I learn to keep my head down, to speak to the guards only when they ask a direct question, to never challenge their authority, and to never complain no matter what they do to me. I learn where I stood, man. I knew my place. But a surprising thing happen — a thing I had stop hoping for — I was set free.
As unexpected as they arrest me, they release me with equal suddenness. My cell was unlocked and they just shove me out. Nobody tell me nothing. I was thrown out like the trash I had started believing I was. I spend eight years in prison and just so they let me go? Of course, man had to be suspicious! But maybe suspicious is not the right word, Rasta. Maybe it more better to say, I was anxious. I was feeling like it was a mistake and at any moment somebody would come and grab me and bring me back in. So you know, I and I sit on a rock outside the prison house and just wait. I and I wait how long to see what was going to happen. But when I realise nobody coming back for me, I decide maybe I should make my way home. I didn’t have nothing. They didn’t give nothing to me except the clothes I had on when they arrest me. And I was suppose to find my own way home. What a thing, dread. You know, because I had no money and no one knew I was let go. So I decide to walk. Dread, I walk the whole way to my community and you know how far that is. Vehicles pass. They see me tongoing how much and nobody offer me a ride. But you know, dread, even if they offered I wouldn’t take it. I had it in my mind that I deserve to walk. I still had penance you know? I was still guilty. So even though I was how weak and sweaty in that hot sun I take it slow and deliberate, you know? I leave the prison around 4pm and I reach home around 6pm the next day. I had to take my time. I had no water. I did not eat anything since maybe the day before I was freed. But most importantly, I was in no rush to see anybody or for anybody to see me. I felt like nothing, you know? I was such a great disappointment. Why would anybody see me and welcome me back? I was a murderer. I didn’t even know why I was walking in the direction of home. Which home?
When I reach the junction to my old home, my old community, I saw people from all over the area standing at the bus shelter looking both scared and confused at the sight of me. I looked like shit, sweating in clothes that had come way too big for me. Disfigured by all the beatings I had received — I knew the person they saw had changed into something broken and ugly. I bend my head in shame and hurry away. But padna, I never realise how numb I had been for these eight years until I reach by my mother place. I walk into that community and I keep my head down the whole way through. And I swear, a crowd of family and friends was following me and I didn’t even check that. I was just intent on reaching home. And dread, as soon as I reach my mother step, I just fall down on my knees and I start bawling. I just couldn’t hold the tears. And when I see my mother face towering above me…boy it was like rage, sorrow, pain, everything was just pouring out of my eyes. I was so happy to see my mother, man. But I was so sad and angry at the same time. I was feeling a mixture of things and that’s when I start to tremble. So my mother pull me up and wrap her arms around me. And then I feel so many other arms start to hold me tight. The whole community had surround me and they all had somehow gotten their arms around me. They were injecting me with love and I receive it with all my heart because nobody had hold me so tenderly for so long. Rasta, it was nice but it was scary too and I couldn’t stop shaking.
After my people calm me down and welcome me back, they take me by the hand and bring me down to the river. Nobody ask me if I guilty or innocent. They just wash me, sing and cry over my broken body. They rub me down with herbs and ointments and each of them prayed a prayer over me. Rasta, when that was happening I was feel so strange. Like I was paranoid or something. I was feeling like at any moment my people would turn on me and try something. So I was preparing my body for anything even though in my heart I knew I was safe, I just didn’t know how to believe it. I don’t know if you get what I saying. But I and I hold myself strong and I submit myself to the whole community at the same time. I knew they were trying to rebaptise me, reintegrate me, re-establish me, all the “re’s” you can think of, into the fold. So I and I had to let them.
But let me tell you the funniest thing though. I was set free from prison because the same eyewitness that see me escape out of the old lady window had been the murderer all along. See how things work out? Man, this confuse me so much. Rastaman, like I and I know you have to investigate crime before you make arrest. Not so? Them fellas just take the word of the so-called eyewitness and beat a confession out of me. Why you think they were so happy to accept me for the crime? Because I man had dreadlocks? Because I man smoke a little sensi? I man never steal a blade of grass in my life. I man never kill a fly. But them fellas convince me I kill that lady. You know I was still dreaming, even after I find out who do the crime, that it was me who do it? Why I was such a easy target for them fellas? I must have ‘murderer’ stamp somewhere on my forehead. Small country boys always good for nothing. Ignorant criminals, yes-I!
The guy, the eyewitness, was from the North. I not sure but I hear he was a foreman at a construction site. Anyway, I guess he hear about the rich old lady from one of his workers. So he make a plan to rob the lady or whatever. But hear how they catch misyè. He was dead-drunk at a bar and was bragging to plenty people. Surprise, surprise, one of the people he end up bragging to just happen to be a cop. The police officer bring the fella home because he suppose the man too drunk to drive. And since the officer was already at the padna house, he decide to just check to see if the fella had the items he was insisting he had take from the dead woman’s house.
According to the guy, the old lady was none the wiser. When he enter the house through a half open window, she didn’t make a shift. She was sleeping so hard. He could have stolen the bed from under her and she wouldn’t have noticed. But according to his exact words, he “wanted to teach the bitch a lesson.” He provide the police officer with all the details, explaining how easy he get away. The cop feel compel to do his job and that’s how the padna get catch. But how is me the padna choose to frame? We don’t know each other from Adam! What he do? Pick the first Rastaman he see?
You see how easy life can take a turn, dread? I was never the same after prison. I lose my peace, and I was anxious all the damn time; afraid that somebody would grab me out of bed and take me back to prison, frightened of being beaten to a bloody pulp for no goddamn reason. I was just not myself anymore. I try to lead a normal life, whatever the hell that mean. I went back to work with my cousins but I didn’t have the strength I had back in the day. I could barely lift my own arms over my head. I do my best though, and the workers was patient, a little too patient though. They, without meaning to, made me feel like an invalid. Who really wanted a slow-moving broken man on a construction site? Money got wasted that way. But no one would fire me. They feel too sorry for me, so I quit and soon after, I and I move to a different area.
Don’t get me wrong, Rasta, I love the people in my community but I wasn’t part of the place no more. My old girlfriend move on with her life. She have her right, of course. Nobody was shouting my name to come and help so and so. People was coming by to check on me often and it was the same set of questions. The same set of pitying. Everybody face was always stitch-up in sadness at the sight of me. Dread, I just couldn’t take it, all right? I couldn’t take it. I wasn’t the man I used to be. Even my mother couldn’t help but sob a tearless sob at the sight of me. I couldn’t be around that, man. That was bringing me down lower than I was already.
And to be honest man, I was pissed off all the time too. The community members, my mother, they all was angry too. The people put me in prison for a crime I didn’t commit. They beat a confession out of me and up to this day I having nightmares. I and I not worth a damn apology? Not 50 cents for compensation? Reparation? However you want to call it? What Rastaman going to do though? Sue the police? Question the justice system? With which money, dread, eh? Who would support me? People around our parts didn’t do things like that. We could probably just mumble quietly in upset. But Rasta know better than to even mumble. I man learn how to keep my head down. No waves, dread. I man know where waves does lead. But boy, what happen to me rupture the community bad. Everybody had a hole in the shape of me in their heart. It was just too tough to be around that.
I and I move to the west of the island — about two hours away. I got a job as a ‘bagger’ in a small supermarket, keep my head down, keep my hair short, stop smoking weed, and stayed completely out of sight. I wasn’t trying to make no friends, talked only when I was spoken to and lived on my own vibes.
A year and a half later I meet a older lady who see beyond my bony face and battered body. We become friends and then later we become lovers. She see my bleeding trauma and never look away. She give me two little girls; children I never even hoped for. I thought I was too mash-up to be anything productive. Honest to Jah Jah, I was just walking around the place, bagging groceries and waiting to die. But Mary — that was my woman name — she give me happiness I didn’t even know was possible. At least for a time.
I spend six good years with Mary and our girls. Then I start to mutate. Like one of those ninja turtles. Mutant? Mutate? Same thing, no? I was changing into something else. I could feel myself, my soul, disappearing. And I was feeling like broken glass was swimming all around my insides. Dread, my black skin turn a startling yellowish-green and my legs swell up like balloons. And man, pain was moving about my body like was the Holy Ghost — it moving here, it moving there, it moving everywhere. Jah! After a time I couldn’t even work. I couldn’t stand for long. I couldn’t sit for long. I couldn’t walk for long. Jah! You don’t know, Rasta! To say I was hurting is a real understatement. It was so bad I had to let my woman take me to hospital. And you know man like me doesn’t go to no hospital because if bush can’t cure you, nothing doctor do will heal you. But honestly I already knew what was happening. I just wanted it confirm. A man couldn’t get beat so much in his life and feel everything would be copacetic. I feel lucky I get six years and I and I was able to procreate in that time. I never thought that would happen. Maybe if I had confess earlier, this might not have been my fate, my destiny. Maybe if the police had do their job like they suppose to, I would have lead a different life.
But this was the life I and I get. Some padnas have more luck than others. Innocent brethren go six feet under while guilty man walking around, healthy and irie. Is so things does go. I just want Mary and the children to know the life I and I had with them was a good one. I just want my children to know daddy love them. I just want my people to know I didn’t forget them. Is they that give me the strength to struggle for survival. But dread, you see how a short life can be long, eh? This Rastaman tired bad, bad bad. Do me a little favour nuh, man? One for the road. Sing me a song. Something with a sweet Marley tune. Sing Rastaman home to Zion, back to those days of freedom.
Malica S. Willie is a Saint Lucian writer and researcher who won the Orlando Palmer Prose Fiction prize for her short story, ‘Swinging in the Wind’ in 2017 and who has published both poetry and short fiction in journals such as Poui, Journal of West Indian Literature, Interviewing the Caribbean, The Caribbean Writer and MOKO Magazine.