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Authors: Makeda Silvera

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BOOK: The Heart Does Not Bend
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CHRISTMAS IS COMING
, but we’re not sure how to spend the holiday. Grand-aunt Ruth insists we respect the memory of her sister by celebrating the birth of Christ. Aunt Joyce couldn’t agree more; she’s already bought a few fancy dresses and shoes and has tickets for a stage show at the best hotel in Kingston. I guess we’ll go through the rituals of Christmas, soothing our pain with the traditional songs and what precious memories we can scrape together.

Glory, Uncle Peppie and Aunt Val and Vittorio have left the island. I convinced Ciboney to stay for Christmas, see a bit of Jamaica and get to know her great-grand-aunts. We’re both not ready to face home—the snow, the cold, the emptiness.

I call Rose several times. Leave messages. She never calls back. One day she answers, as unforgiving as I suspected she’d be. She loves me, that I know. She understands that I’ve come back needful, but she’s not willing to take on the burden left by a dead woman.

I decide to take Ciboney to see the dead-end street. I want
to see our old house, the Ritz Theatre and the Chinese pastry shops once more. Cousin Ivan offers to drive us there, but I want to travel by bus, to smell, to breathe, to remember at my own pace.

“Careful, Molly, Kingston change, yuh know,” Aunt Joyce says. “A pure duttiness left down here. Ah don’t know why yuh want fi tek de dutty bus and mix wid—”

“Joyce, leave de girl alone, nothing won’t happen to her. After all, she not a fool,” Grand-aunt Ruth interrupts. Then she turns to me. “Molly go wid God’s blessing, and hold yuh handbag tight.”

To appease Aunt Joyce, I allow Cousin Ivan to drive us as far as Half-way Tree. We take the bus along Maxfield Avenue and in no time are caught in a frenzy of commuters pushing and shoving and jostling for space. The smell of fresh perspiration is strong, and the sounds of reggae and patois fill the air. We bake in the heat that presses in through the windows. There is no room for conversation between Ciboney and me, so we simply bask in the sounds and smells until the driver calls our stop and we push our way out.

The old neighbourhood has really changed. The streets feel boxed in now that small grocery shops and houses made of zinc and corrugated boards have been built in people’s front yards. The sidewalks are littered with garbage, broken bottles and dog shit. Skinny stray dogs circle each other, vying for chicken bones. Barefoot children in tattered clothes run about the streets, while women carrying baskets of fruits and vegetables skirt the sidewalks and piazzas, selling their goods. I point out a betting shop to Ciboney; it used to be a Chinese shop that sold Mama’s pastries. I don’t point out the
bars Mama frequented. They’re still selling rum, though their names have changed.

We turn onto the dead-end street and I hardly recognize it. The pavement is full of potholes. Additional shacks have been added to weathered brick houses, and most of the gates are broken. Young men hang off fences like soiled rags on a line. Two or three girls in bikini tops keep them company.

Petal’s old treehouse still stands. It’s painted in beautiful Rasta colours, and hardcore dance-hall music spills out from it with a violent intensity. The smell of ganja reaches our nostrils. The fruit trees have all been cut down except for one in front, which shades a makeshift shop selling single cigarettes, cigarette paper and candy.

Suddenly Ciboney tugs on my arm, interrupting my thoughts, and asks, “How much further?”

I slow at the next house and point it out to Ciboney.

“This? This? This is the house all the fussing was about?” she asks in disbelief.

I shrug, disappointed. “This is not how it used to be.”

The flower beds are gone, the trees cut down, and concrete covers the yard. The barbed-wire fence is naked without the bougainvillea vine. The paint on the house is badly flaked, and the stairs leading up to the balcony are lopsided. I bang on the old, broken-down gate. A pack of scrawny mongrels rush to greet us, followed by children. A woman looking as tired as the house comes out to the verandah.

“Come in, don’t mind de dogs!” she shouts.

“Hold de dogs,” I tell the children.

Ciboney cautiously follows me to the verandah, where I introduce myself to the woman.

“Ah know. Ah heard about de landlady. Ah sorry fi hear.” She invites us into the house and lets us wander freely through the rooms. They’re clean, but the walls are in need of paint, the floors are chipped, and the ceiling is stained with brown water marks.

“De roof a leak, de floor chip up, mi use dis big pot fi catch de rainwater. The water all blow thru de window. And look,” she says, pointing to a dripping pipe.

“We’ll try to make some repairs,” I say, before remembering that Vittorio is now the owner of this house.

“This was Mama’s and my room,” I tell Ciboney. “And this was Uncle Mikey and Uncle Freddie’s.” Ciboney looks around, her eyes indifferent.

I ask to see the backyard.

“Nutten much to see, everything chop down. Is pure concrete dere,” the woman says.

Ciboney sighs and rolls her eyes. I ignore her.

The only familiar thing in the backyard is the fowl coop. A few hens and a rooster strut around, followed by half a dozen yellow chicks. The vegetable garden is gone, and only a stubborn hedge of mint remains.

Before leaving, I climb the steps to the balcony. “This used to be the fanciest house on the street,” I tell Ciboney.

“Yeah, I bet,” she says derisively.

My heart boils, but I smother my anger. “Come, let’s go visit Myers.”

Myers had been at Mama’s funeral, and I promised him that I would visit before leaving the island.

From a distance, it’s easy to tell which house is Myers’s. His yard is the only green one on the street. Mango trees
laden with expansive leaves envelop the house, but as we go through the gate and up the path, we can see him sitting on the verandah, smoking a pipe.

“Yuh really come back fi visit me?” he asks, smiling, as we join him and sit down. Myers’s hair is silver-grey, but his face shows little wear for his years.

A woman named Violet, not much older than me, comes out of the house and offers us a drink. At Myers’s insistence I take a cold rum-and-lime drink and Ciboney has a long glass of lemonade. The mango trees block the ugliness of the street and muffle the dance-hall music.

“Yuh dear ole granny gone to rest,” he said. “A de Father call her home. Nuh fret yuhself. The flesh gone, but de spirit still present.” A whiff of ganja floats through the mango tree. “Cyaan get away from dat, yuh know. Rum and dat a we staple,” he says matter-of-factly. He turns his attention to Ciboney.

“And how are you, foreign princess? I see you have yuh mother same ackee-seed eyes. Watch dem Jamaican man, yuh nuh, for dem love ackee.” Ciboney laughs and appears more relaxed.

Myers calls out to Violet to bring another round of drinks.

Violet looks anxious. “Myers, remember, de doctor—”

He brushes away her last words with his hands. “Doctor kill people every day. When God ready fi mi, no one have any control. Mi father use to say, ‘whey nuh broke nuh fix it.’”

“Myers, you ever visit America?” I ask.

“Never had no desire. Mi love Jamaica, doh it not paradise. Yuh cyaan ever seh who running dis country. Sometime
it look like a foreigners and gunmen in control. Dem own we coffee, dem build up dem resort, dem control de ghetto area and dem bring every kind a drug in de country fi kill de youths. And de damn politicians ’fraid fi dem.” He takes a large gulp of rum.

I ask Myers to show us his garden. His backyard is filled with fruit trees, flowers and a large vegetable patch. He takes Ciboney by the hand and leads her down a stone path, pointing out callaloo, susumbés and the cho-cho vine. I sit on a stool outside the kitchen door and wonder how things would have been had I not written that letter to Uncle Peppie so many years ago.

Violet comes out of the house. “Ah never know yuh granny, but Myers say she was a strong-minded woman. A good friend. Somebody who never throw stone pon other people. Him seh, she did like her drinks every now and then.”

I ask her if she works for Myers and she gives an embarrassed laugh.

“Things hard in de country. Myers kind enough to take me in.”

She offers me another drink. I hesitate, but the disappointment on her face makes me change my mind.

Ciboney’s voice draws nearer. She sounds happy. Her face is animated and brims with new discoveries.

“We should go now,” I say. “The sun going down. Myers, ah will come back and see you again soon.”

“Ah not sticking around much longer—ah see enough of life.”

“Don’t mind Myers, him talk like that all de while,” Violet says, laughing.

Ciboney and I both hug him and say goodbye. I hold him a bit longer and feel his heart thumping softly in his chest.

Walking back down the street, I pause at our old gate and take another look at our house. The sun is going down and the sky is a rainbow of yellow, blue and rose pink. I can see Mama sitting on the verandah, holding court, a flask of white rum, water, lemon and ice set before her.

“Ciboney, I say, “I can’t take another bus ride today. Let’s get a taxi.” She holds my hand and we walk like that for some time.

The next day Ciboney and I visit Port Maria. I want her to see where her great-great-grandmother Mammy’s house once stood. We walk over to the district of Jericho, where Mama’s cousins live, and eat a lunch of fried snapper and hard-dough bread, washing it down with lemonade. Then we grab a couple of towels and walk down to the beach to bathe in the sea. Afterwards we stretch out on the sand beneath a mangrove tree, letting the lazy waves lull us into near-sleep.

“You loved her, didn’t you?” Ciboney suddenly asks.

“Of course. Even though there were moments when I found her hateful.”

“I don’t mean Mama.”

I hesitate, searching for words, then say, “Yes.”

“Why did you let her go?”

“I had no choice.”

“What do you mean you had no choice?”

I search the sea water for an answer. “Yes, I did have a
choice. I chose Mama,” I finally say.

“You have to live your own life, Mom,” she lectures, as if I were a schoolgirl.

“Ciboney,” I say tiredly, “we don’t live our lives independent of others. It’s all a give and take, and when you take, you have to give back.” She is quiet. “Rose is fun and adventurous, and totally free. All the things I’m not. All the things I love about her. But she has a blind spot. She forgets that in some small way we are all dependent on each other.”

Silence stretches before us. Children romp along the beach, playing tag.

“What about Vittorio?” she asks. “Did you ever love him? Or was there always this thing between you?”

“What thing?”

“I don’t know. Dislike …I don’t know.”

“No,” I answer slowly. “When he was a baby, I loved him like a little brother. Changed his diapers. Sang him songs. I adored his mother. I still have a photograph of her. Don’t you remember when I used to take you and Vittorio to the movies, the botanical gardens, the park, zoo? Everywhere.”

“I don’t remember.”

I flinch at her reply and remember Mama asking her children, “Unnu have amnesia?”

“Mama turned him into a spoiled brat,” I say impatiently.

“That’s not true. She was understanding and patient. Isn’t that how grandmothers are supposed to be? I don’t know what I’ll do without her. I miss her so much it hurts.”

“‘I know, baby …I miss her, too, and things won’t ever be the same.” I try to pull her into my arms, but she swiftly moves away. “Please,” I say. “Let’s try.”

She shrugs, jumps up and runs into the water. Her tiny frame seems so fragile in the sea.

I follow her and shout, “I’ll race you to the buoy and back.”

She easily beats me. When I reach the shore, I fall to my knees, gasping for air.

“You need exercise,” Ciboney says, glad to have won.

We return to our spot under the mangrove tree and watch the soothing movement of the waves. I try to absorb their serenity, but I’m on edge.

“Looks like we’ll get rain,” I say, looking at the patches of cloud forming above our heads.

“Yeah,” she answers absently.

I’m thinking of buying a house when I get back home,” I say.

Ciboney takes this in with measured interest.

“There’ll be room for you and Maud.”

“I’m comfortable enough,” she says.

The sky grows as dark as night and there is a burst of thunder. Lightning as dazzling as fireworks flashes from the heavens, and rain suddenly gushes from the black clouds. Ciboney and I dash for cover under a thatch-roofed shelter, and I wrap my towel tight around me to take the chill away.

VINTAGE CANADA EDITION, 2003

Copyright © 2002 Makeda Silvera

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in Canada by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, in 2002.
Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Vintage Canada and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House of Canada Limited.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Silvera, Makeda, 1955–
          The heart does not bend: a novel / Makeda Silvera.

eISBN: 978-0-307-36592-7

          I. Title.

PS8587.I274H42 2003        C813′.54        C2002-903410-8
PR9199.3.S51766H42 2003

www.randomhouse.ca

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BOOK: The Heart Does Not Bend
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