Under the Tamarind Tree
Kingston days were hot, and running, skipping, and jumping in tightly, buttoned uniforms only made us hotter. The hard sun would beat on our backs, as if it were punishing us or loving us exuberantly. After play, I would catch my breath, by resting against the links of the fence of a madwoman’s house, and the rain of the tamarind blossoms would fall on my hair. Under the tamarind tree, the fallen green leaves, and shedding yellow and orange blossoms created a small rainbow on the ground. The madwoman’s tree was my oasis.
I used to play near the madwoman’s house in the mornings before school. She would wave or give me two thumbs up whenever I caught the Dandy Shandy ball, and though I feared her, I appreciated her encouragement. I would try to point her out to my friends, but seeing my finger pointed in her direction, she would slip behind the large tamarind tree in her yard, so that they wouldn’t see her. We loitered near her house because the umbrella-like tree provided relief from the harsh sun while we sang, danced, and played.
At the fence, I wondered about her wooden house and the woman inside. Why did she have no friends? No one ever entered or left. Why didn’t she have a husband to bring her hard candies, or presents? I would see her standing in the doorway with her hair in four plaits, an oversized dress, and bare feet. There were no other women like her in the community; not my prim fourth grade teacher Mrs. McQueen, not my friends’ mothers, and not my aunt, a pastor’s wife, with whom I spent my Saturday and Sunday afternoons. As a motherless child, as my aunt referred to me often, my religious and moral education was of utmost importance.
One shimmering Monday, while the sun stroked my small back, Keisha threw the Dandy Shandy ball too far; it sailed over Paige and Carey’s heads, over my raised hands, over the fence and deep into the madwoman’s yard.
“You have to get it.” Carey yelled.
“You’re the one who didn’t catch it.”
“But, you’re a boy.” Keisha piped up. “You should get it.”
“Why don’t we just make another ball, I have a juice box and paper.”
“No, I want that ball, and Mae should get it,” Carey declared.
I squinted at him. He was stained, sweaty, and the way his lip curled reminded me of my uncle who decried sinners every Sunday on his pulpit. I shut my eyes, and then opened them wider, though the sun made it hard to do so, noticing for the first time that Carey wasn’t the hero that I’d always dreamed him to be, but a scared boy. A boy in pants that were too long, and hair that he refused to brush.
“You’re a fassy,” I sneered, as I turned my back on him and climbed the fence into the madwoman’s yard. As I fell into the yard, the leaves of the tamarind tree rustled a greeting that sounded like a thousand soft hellos.
She had been waiting for me. I sensed it the moment I dropped from the high fence into her yard. She stood in the shade, beside the trunk, the leaves casting centipede shadows on her face. She looked at me as if seeing an old friend. I was as rooted as the high tree covering us; it would have been easier for one of the spindly tamarind limbs to pick up the ball than my hands. They hung at my sides; I couldn’t move. She gazed at me with tenderness. With small steps, as if not to frighten me, she picked up the ball and handed it to me. Her hand brushed mine, and recognition washed over me in waves.
“I baked a cake this morning, come back after school,” she said. I could hear my friends calling from the other side of the fence, “Come Mae, come nuh,” then the peal of the school bell in the distance. We were late and now we would have to run. Regaining movement, I tucked the ball in the pocket of my school uniform, and scrambled over the fence. Up close, I had seen that the madwoman was about my mother’s age when she left for the hospital. But, unlike my mother, her face, the color of unsalted cashews, had not formed frown lines or permanent grooves by her mouth.
History, my favorite subject, held no interest for me that day. I didn’t care about Paul Bogle’s rebellion in Morant Bay, or that William Gordon had also died to better the lives of others; even my beloved heroine, Nanny of the Maroons, failed to captivate me with her warrior woman antics. My mind drifted from slaves, and descendants of slaves, to Dandy Shandy, and the nameless woman under the tamarind tree. Mrs. McQueen noticed my lack of attention and reprimanded me often. In exasperation, she even rapped me across the knuckles, and told me to stand outside for a few minutes. My mind wandered back to madwoman and the color of her dress.
Her dress was the yellow, pointed nose of an anthurium. It sagged on her, and the hem was unraveling at the seam, but it was clean. The dress was different from the fancy dresses that still hung in my mother’s closet; it resembled a housedress that I had worn two years earlier. It struck me that she was wearing a little girl’s dress in an adult size.
After the school bell rang twice, signaling the day’s end, I knew that I would visit the madwoman on my way home. As I walked up to the fence, I could see her sitting on a carpet of fallen blossoms under the tamarind tree. Again, she was waiting for me.
“Hello,” she whispered. I nodded my greeting. She stood, brushed the leaves from her dress, and came to the fence.
“Let me help you over,” she said.
“No, I can do it myself.”
She stretched her arms out anyway, and swung me over. Her arms were strong, like I remembered my mother’s were before she left and never returned. Her hands were warm and big, the kind of hands that can cradle a feverish baby and calm his fretful body. She held me longer than I needed to steady myself.
“Let’s go inside.”
“I have to go, I can’t stay.”
“No, stay awhile. I’ve made your favorite cake.”
“What am I doing here?” I wondered, “and how would she know my favorite kind of cake?”
I almost turned to go, but I stayed; I stayed because I saw the pleading in her eyes, because her voice was like soothing warm milk, and because I felt a magnetic pull toward her.
Her house was one open room. No family portraits lined the walls, the kind that depict smiling faces for as long as it takes the photographer to snap the picture. There were no crushed red velvet loveseats, no Oriental rugs, no bed. I didn’t see a television, but beside a blooming, potted geranium, there was a record player identical to the one I had received for my ninth birthday one year earlier. She had a small table, a pot hung on the wall, and there was an oven in the corner,
“Let’s sit down and have tea,” she said.
She arranged two large slices of carrot cake on a daisy-decorated plate, and turned off the kettle. As a younger child, my mother had repeatedly reminded me not to eat from strangers. Yet, now that I was in her house, amidst her few kitchen utensils, her books, record player, records, and assorted cushions on the floor, I could feel that this woman was no stranger.
“What did you do in school today?” she asked.
“Oh you know, stuff.”
“What kind of ‘stuff’?”
I tried to remember the few things I could from Mrs. McQueen’s lesson and recite them to her. It was nice to be asked about my day; it rarely happened with adults.
“Well, William Gordon was a politician who got people to rebel because things weren’t fair.”
“Why weren’t things fair?”
I squirmed attempting to think of more.
“Some people were treated good and others really bad.”
She looked at me for a long moment, “You mean like how things are now?” The room began to purple as night fell, and night noises filled the air. No words were exchanged between us, but her eyes held me, and I felt as if I were in an embrace.
“Do you know who I am?”
“No,” I shook my head.
I couldn’t tell her that I had nicknamed her the madwoman from the first time that I had seen her. She lifted her thin, brown hand and pointed, “Go to the record player and play us a song.” I didn’t understand why she had pointed since the record player was only a few steps away. She behaved as if she were in a mansion, and for a moment I wished that we were. I got up and rifled through her records, grinning at her selection, because all my favorites were there: Michael Jackson, Barrington Levy, Al Brown. There were other names and faces that I didn’t recognize on the jacket sleeves: Nina Simone, Randy Crawford, Phyllis Hyman.
“Play Nina,” she commanded. Her voice sounded strange. She had never said anything in more than a whisper in the short time that we had known each other. “Put the needle on the third groove.” I complied happily when I saw the title of the song, “Just Like A Woman.” I appreciated that she trusted me to be able to listen to and like a grown-up song. Her eyes closed while she sang:
She takes like a woman, yea she does
And she makes love just like a woman
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks like a little girl
I had never heard the song before, but somewhere in my stomach, I felt that I had. It hurt. Her eyes opened, darting prisms of brown light into the still, warm dusk. Her bright eyes warmed the room. She lifted her index finger to her mouth, and I saw the butterfly scar at its crease. How had I not noticed it before? It was identical to the scar by my mouth. My mother would kiss my scar, and tell me that the wings gave her strength.
“Will you fly and soar above the heavens my love?” my mother would tease me. “ “No, mummy, and you don’t leave me;” I said.
I begged her not to leave me, again, when my father came into the room, and told her it was time for her to let me get some rest. He grabbed her by the upper arm, and I pleaded, “Please don’t leave me.” She looked at me with downcast eyes, as my father pushed the door close.
The madwoman and I stared at each other in the room being lit only by fireflies. Shadows walking between us, smoothed her plaits, then mine, and walked on. My rising fear quieted when she picked up my hand.
“You know who I am,” she stated.
“Yes, you are me. The me, I will be.”
“Why do you live here?”
“To help you.”
The record played on:
When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I looked around, and began to shiver. She touched my cheek with just her fingertips.
“Don’t worry, it’s alright.”
“It’s not,” I started to cry.
“I know you call me madwoman, but I’m not mad.”
“But you have nothing, not even a TV,” I sniffled.
“Mae, I have my sanity. That’s hard work,” she smiled. “You don’t understand this now, but sometimes you only need yourself and nature’s protection.”
“I don’t see...”
“You know Mae, in Hindu mythology, the tamarind tree personifies idealized love.”
She opened a book that was lying near a cushion, and showed me a highlighted passage:
It is said that Krishna sat under a tamarind tree when separated from Radha and experienced an intense epiphany with her spirit permeating him.
It seemed that the madwoman and my mother had two things in life that they needed for peace. I believed that I required more for happiness, but I couldn’t be sure. I remembered that my mother would look at her jewelry and dresses, and say that the sun and my laughter were the only gold that she needed. Now the madwoman was telling me that she only needed herself and nature.
A minute later, my father pushed open the door of the one room house and found me on the floor staring at a large box.
“What did I tell you about playing in an empty house girl?”
I scrambled for my shoes, as he raised his hand.
“If you can’t hear you’re going to have to feel.”
Shaking, I put on my brown Mary Janes, and brushed the cake crumbs off my green uniform.
“You know I hate to beat you,” he continued, “but you refuse to listen.”
I struggled mentally with the idea that my father hated to hit me as he had just proclaimed. I wondered if he had also hated to beat my mother. He had shown no hesitation in taking the broom out of the closet and striking her until he broke her ribcage. He had shown no regret after slamming her into the counter and breaking her collarbone.
He didn’t seem to hate hitting when he broke her left arm, or four months later, her right. I stood with my shoes fastened, “Daddy, I’m ready.”
Walking to my father’s car, I heard two mournful voices on the wind, “But she breaks just like a little girl.”