An old man tries to settle a score
By Derek Berry Thorpe.
With child, she swayed from the rafter. To and fro. Two and fro.
The old man ambled alongside his bicycle. Exhausted from pre-dawn fishing, he followed the familiar trek back home from his boat in the bay. The afternoon sun rained on his back, and his sweaty shirt clung to him as if it had claws. Lately, there wasn't enough strength left to ride over the small hill ahead, so he dismounted at the edge of the village. The happy little stray dog everyone called Scotty, always joined him as he passed the rum shop. She trotted behind, smelling the tires and hoping for a morsel of food from the satchel that swung on his handlebars. The old man shared a corner of his sandwich with her. She caught the gift in flight and returned to the shade under the shop, her tail ever-wagging. The coastal island breeze kicked up a bit. It carried a faint smell of brine as a passenger and cooled the perspiration trickling down his forehead. He tipped his hat to some older gentlemen he knew sitting in the shop doorway and continued on.
On a dirt clearing ahead, just off the road, a group of young men played dominoes. It was a perfect site for playing: The canopy of breadfruit and short coconut trees provided shade from the Caribbean sun, it was less than a stone's throw from cool beer, and most importantly, the bus stopped right there at the pole. Between games, while shuffling the tiles, the players whistled and catcalled at the pretty women gathered for their transport.
Lean Vernon Hackett stood at one side of the plywood that rested over a barrel. His skinny bare back faced the road as he studied the tiles and prepared to play. He seemed very proud of his bony arms and chest for some reason and took any opportunity to show his wiry frame to whoever cared to look. He chose a tile from his hand and slammed it down on the surface with flair and bravado in anticipation of winning the game.
"Man Twig, you don't have to slam them so hard. Look how you mess up the rest of them," blurted one player.
The old man approached the noisy group ahead, preparing to pass in the space between Twig and the road. It was his turn again, but as Twig raised his arm to slam another tile, the old man accidentally jostled into him. Twig's balance was thrown and his arm hit the edge of the playing surface, upsetting the entire game.
"Mercy be, Miah! You see what you make me do? That game was mine to win!" shouted Twig.
"I am sorry, Vernon. I...I was dizzy," said Miah in apology.
"Dizzy...You not dizzy, you need to use your good eye to see where you are going, and not that fake marble one that don't move," sneered Twig, and he lunged at Miah, pushing him over his bicycle.
Old man, Jeremiah David crashed over his handlebars and rolled off the bicycle frame into the dirt. He lay there for a moment, dazed, hearing just three things: the hushed gasps from the other players, the tic tic ticking of his spinning back wheel, and the low growl coming from Scotty, ripping at Twig's trouser leg.
"Easy, Twig. Easy, man," said the player.
No one else dared to say anything against Twig as they were all very aware of who his father was. He was slight of frame but his connections were formidable. He kicked away the dog from his ankle and stood over Miah watching him prepare to get up. The contents of the satchel had also spilled out, and among the sweat rags, the half eaten sandwich, and the brown banana peel, something caught Twig's eye. Two tightly bound, thick rolls of money. Twig could tell that both rolls had twenty- dollar bills on the outsides, before Miah scooped them back up into the bag. The barking stopped, the tiles were picked up and reshuffled, and Miah continued on his way up the hill. The domino game resumed, but Twig was now far less enthusiastic about winning.
At home, Miah David had already taken care of the bruise on his forearm from the incident earlier. Into an iron pot in his back yard, he put a number of herbs and plants, added some water and covered it. He re-entered his house, went to his pantry and took the last can of sardines and six biscuits from the package, and sat down for his supper. That afternoon, they had started to set up stalls for the annual fish festival on the beach, and he had left early. He didn't want to be reminded of that celebration and how it had changed his life.
He sipped water from his enamel cup and listened to the BBC news on his radio. The batteries finally died around the time the sun set, and he shut the transmission down with a click. He got up, turned the kitchen and the dining lights off, sat on a bench outside his bedroom and waited. He sat in the darkness and thought about Eleanor...again, and waited some more.
Twig saw the two lights go out in Miah's house from the bushes across the road. He tried to work out how long it would take for the old man to go to sleep. He figured a half an hour would be enough time to wait before he broke into his house. By the time he made his move from the bushes, he had already picked out the motorcycle that he was going to buy with the money he'd steal from Miah. Hardly anyone locked their doors in the countryside and he hoped that this lonely old man didn't decide to start tonight. Twig, with stealth, went up the three steps to the side door and turned the knob. It was old and rusted but with a bit of force the unlocked door opened. He peered head-first into the pitch black void then stepped into Miah David's house.
He reached behind for his small pocket torch, took a step forward and his foot dragged on a nylon cord. He heard a swishing noise in the roof and without warning, Twig felt as if he were walking into a huge spider's web. Something fell on his head and around his shoulders and he muffled a yelp. At the same time, he was shoved into a chair and someone bound him with surprising speed in the darkness. With the need for stealth gone, Twig began to struggle and shout. The overhead light came on and he saw Miah standing in front of him with a cricket bat in hand. There was a fishing net draped over him and rope twined around his waist.
Miah approached. "I have no problem hitting you in the head with this bat if you keep shouting, Vernon!"
"How you get to do this to me? " said a struggling Twig.
"Why you break into my house, Vernon?"
"I...Your door was open. I was checking to see if you were alright. You better untie me!"
"Or you will do what? Tell everyone that you got beat up by an old man after you break into his house? Just settle yourself, Vernon. Settle yourself and listen to me carefully!" insisted Miah, pulling up a chair to sit across from him.
Twig's eyes adjusted to the light and he looked, with some fear, at Miah's craggy wrinkles and his grey glass eye up-close. His breathing settled a bit.
"Why do you think you are here? Why do you think you are tied up with a fishing net and rope?" asked Miah.
"I don' know."
"You are here because I am a fisherman. I am good at it in the sea and I am good at it on land. You just have to know what kind of bait to use. Look over there on the table Vernon. Is that what you break into my house for?" asked Miah.
He motioned to the table next to the wall, where the two rubber-banded wads of money rested like size 'D' batteries. Twig looked over and swallowed hard.
"You think you can get the Kawasaki motorcycle with that cash?"
"How you know that I want to get that?"
"I been passing by your domino games for years. Many things are said. I just pay attention."
"Listen, you can keep your money, you starting to waste my time. Untie me and we call this even, Miah."
"But I want you to have the money, Vernon."
"You...want me to have it?"
"Yes. The money is yours, but you have to do something for me in return," said Miah.
"I want you to give your father some information."
"About what? I don't like going anywhere near him unless I have to. How much money over there?"
"There is enough money over there to buy a brand new motorcycle, Vernon. But you have to tell a story to him for me."
Twig squirmed in the chair. "Why?"
Extra furrows gathered across Miah's brow. "I have a score to settle with him."
Twig's yellow teeth spoiled his smile. "Old man, Miah...You know who you talking about right. My Father, Big Buffer, ex-police Inspector Hackett. You are more crazy than I thought. Nobody settles scores with Big Buffer. I seen and I feel what he can do to people."
"Just deliver the message, Vernon. I take blame for everything else after that."
"Why you keep calling me 'Vernon'. I hate that name. Everybody call me Twig."
A forlornness softened Miah's expression. "Because I knew your mother and I was there when she named you."
"You were there? You knew her? How?" asked Twig with a confused stare trying to assess why Miah's appearance changed.
"It is not important how I know her. I just did."
"You know where she is now in Guyana? Is she coming back here?"
"You think that is where she is?"
"That is what Big Buffer tell me all the time. That she run back there," said Twig.
Miah cleared his throat and nodded.
"I don't know if she is coming back, Vernon," said Miah. " Look, the offer is still there, the money is yours if you want it, but only if you going to talk to your Father. I can not force you. If you say no, I untie you and we call it even."
"My mother never went back to Guyana did she?" asked Twig looking deep into his eye. His nostrils flared and he breathed deeper. Miah just shrugged and blinked slowly.
"What is the story you want me to tell Big Buffer?" asked Twig.
Twig saw Miah eye him for a second. It looked as if he was making up in his mind whether Twig was sincere. He spoke."Tell him that you overheard me say that I found a bale of marijuana floating in the sea while I was fishing. That I brought it home here and I am planning to burn and destroy it in the backyard tomorrow morning."
Twig nodded once. Miah got up and unwound the fishing rope then took the net from around his body. He went to the side table, picked up the two rolls of money and turned to hand them over. But Twig had already gone silently into the quiet night. A shadow when he came, a ghost when he left.
Miah went to the open side-door and closed it. He paused to see if Twig had changed his mind, but he was truly gone. There was a good chance that he would still deliver the message to Inspector Hackett. Regardless of the odds, he turned and began preparing for his arrival in the early morning hours. Of course, there was never any marijuana found at sea, but Miah was sure that the scent of suggestion would be an overpowering bait for the ex-policeman. He put the rolls of money back on the side table and headed for the backyard. He lit a length of newspaper and used it to start a fire under the covered pot. The paper caught the wood shavings, and the wood shavings caught the logs and soon the orange flames danced around under the cauldron. He wanted it to burn hot, so he doused a few drops of kerosene from a half-gallon glass jug. It was easy to become mesmerized by the fire in the yard and think about Eleanor again, but he fought through the hypnotic effect of the flames swaying against the pot surface. There was much to be done inside to get ready for retired Inspector Hackett.
It was just after ten o'clock when Twig reached the home of his father. He walked the entire six miles in the dark and now he was standing outside the low front gate. He used to live there as a child for a while, just after his mother abandoned him until his father kicked him out. He felt very conflicted about being there again. He had enjoyed the safety and prestige of living in a brick house in a nice neighborhood. But the beatings, on himself and his string of women...The beatings all but negated those feelings. He lifted the clasp on the gate and pushed. The rusted hinges made their metallic protest and he walked past Big Buffer's aging Toyota into the garage.
"Who is that out there? Don't come a step further!" Big Buffer's voice was gruff as it carried from behind the window in the garage.
"It is me...Twig."
"What do you want? You looking to get shot at this time of night?" challenged Big Buffer coming from behind the curtain.
"You got any food or change on you?"
"I have plenty of both but I don't see why I should give you any at all."
"I can come inside?"
"No... I have company, go back to where you came from," said his father putting his pistol back into his waistband.
"You hear from my mother recently? Letter? Phone call? Anything?" blurted Twig out of the blue. He knew he had not spoken of her with him in over five years.
"Ahem... aah yes now that you bring it up. Got a letter last week. She good. She good."
"She ask about me?"
"No, it was business. Just business... Why the hell you asking me all these questions?"
"Can you give me her address in Guyana? I want to write her," pleaded Twig looking up at his imposing father.
"Look, stop humbugging me. I don't know the address. I think I throw it away. Besides, you can't even write properly. You need to go now. Your welcome is just about up."
A young woman appeared from behind Buffer Hackett, dressed only in the towel wrapped around her. She pretended to adjust it and smiled. Twig turned to leave the garage then stopped and faced his father again.
"I hear Jeremiah David talking at the shop this afternoon. He say he found some wrap-up marijuana floating in the sea when he was fishing today. He carry it home and he say he going to burn it tomorrow morning."
"Eh heh? How much?"
"I don't know. A lot," said Twig, and he turned again.
"Hey okay. Hold this twenty-dollar bill for me then."
Scowling, he said. "Keep it, Inspector. Keep it."
He left his father's yard and walked back into the night's bosom. He could not explain the sensation he was experiencing. It was as if all the lies his father ever told him had grown wings, and were buzzing around his head. Twig had to fight off the overpowering urge to physically swat them away.
Old man Miah David stooped alongside the boiling mixture in the pot. He stirred the concoction mindlessly as his mind drifted back to thoughts of his Eleanor. How he still missed her over these decades. This new morning would make it fifteen years exactly since her death. Fifteen years of solitude and loneliness without the grace of his beautiful young wife. Although there was opportunity, Miah had no desire for any other woman in his life after her. They had only been married for two years before her death, but he had known her and her sister Linda since they arrived from Guyana when she was just eighteen years old. He was already a mature man in his mid-forties when he first encountered them, and he could still see them both, in their school uniforms and broad-brimmed Panama hats, getting off the bus. They had been sent to stay with relatives until their parents could afford to take them back, but he prayed silently that their fortunes would not turn around before he built up enough courage to court Eleanor. He replayed happier scenes over and over from his memory banks, but the pain of her absence always won.
The old Toyota belonging to Big Buffer Hackett pulled up alongside Miah's house. It must have been close to five-thirty in the morning when Miah heard tires crunching on the gravel next to his house. He had not slept for the entire night, but despite his aging body he was pleased with the energy he still had in reserve. The most difficult task of the night was always going to be getting the wheelbarrow from the yard inside the house. His plan would be of zero value if he could not have achieved this. The doorways in his house were very narrow and it had taken much twisting and leverage to slide it through upright. He placed the wheelbarrow facing outward to the backyard just in front of the back door. He spread his strongest nylon fishing net on the bottom, some bush and debris atop that and covered the whole thing with a bedspread. The last thing he did before he heard the footsteps approaching was to place the glass container of kerosene on the ground against the wall. He sat down and awaited the knock. The flicker of the kerosene lamp on the floor near the doorway offered a comforting glow.
Big Buffer Hackett was of considerable size. From his early thirties, the girth of his abdomen seemed to be on an ever increasing path. Despite his poor physique in the police force, promotions came steadily due in part to his high arrest and confession rate. He retired some five years ago from the force at the rank of inspector but the truth was, his corrupt nature had finally caught up with him. The commissioner demanded his shield or he would have recommended criminal charges be brought against the mountain of accusations leveled over the years. Buffer Hackett was feared and revered in the communities and villages up and down the East coast of the island. He knew Jeremiah David well. In fact, they had attended the same primary school, only at different times, many years ago. He was a bully then, and he still felt entitled to all things he wanted, even as he walked up the steps to this door.
He slapped at the door with an open palm and shouted,"You in there, Miah David? Open the door, you one-eyed monk. We got business to discuss!"
"Who is out there?" feigned Miah.
"Open the door and you will see who. The law is out here!"
"What do you want? I did not send for you."
"Open the door or I will break it down!"
Miah opened the door and stepped back from the entrance. Big Buffer Hackett filled the room when he entered. "I hear you found some contraband. I will take it off your hands and deliver it to the station for evidence."
"You don't work for the force anymore, Buffer. Who are you trying to fool?"
"You better turn it over or I will arrest you for possession, intending to distribute."
"As I said, you are not a policeman and I have already burned it," lied Miah.
"You what? What the hell is that in the wheelbarrow over there then? Step aside!" shouted Buffer as he strong-armed Miah out of the way. He headed through the kitchen towards the wheelbarrow. But Miah anticipated this and followed closely. Just as Big Buffer bent over to flip the bedspread off the wheelbarrow, Miah David brought his hands from behind his back. In each hand he held sharpened sticks that were pasted black at the pointed ends. He thrust both sticks hard, into Big Buffer's buttocks, then withdrew them. Big Buffer yelped in surprise. He clutched the back of his pants and turned around to face Miah.
"What the hell Miah... You stabbed me? You know you are dead right? You are dead!" screamed Buffer Hackett in shock. He reached out and seized the old man around his neck and squeezed. Miah stood firm with little defense. He felt his wind pipe being compressed under the vice of the giant before him, but he remained calm.
He could tell Buffer Hackett felt the urge to kill, but in all honesty, It looked like he felt a larger urge to sit down and throw up. His knees buckled and straightened, then buckled again. Buffer's grip around his neck was embarrassingly weak and he had difficulty focusing his vision. Before he could fall, Miah reached out and pushed him backwards into the wheelbarrow. Big Buffer Hackett thudded neatly into the barrow, crushing the debris and twigs beneath his weight.
"What did you do to me old man... why I feel so strange?"
"All in due time retired inspector," said Miah. He turned away and pushed the dining table from the center of the room then positioned himself between the handles of the wheelbarrow. He steadied himself for the heavy lift. He closed his eyes and pretended he was at sea hauling in a net full of flying fish. It took him three attempts to position the load in the center of the room, but his old back held out. Buffer complained vocally, but his limbs were of little use. Miah gathered the corners of the fishing net overhanging the wheelbarrow, threaded a large boat hook through the mesh and flung the attached rope up and across the large rafter beam in his ceiling. He used a small foot winch to raise the overweight man six inches out of the wheelbarrow and slid it out from under him.
"What you do to me? I can barely talk properly," complained the now suspended ex-policeman swaying gently. "What is this all about?"
"This is about your sins. The wrongs of your life Buffer Hackett. We will just spend a few minutes talking about them. Remind you how you hurt so many people over these years and then I'll see how you feel about them."
"Why can't I move my arms, my legs?"
"Oh...Just a bit of curare on the tip of those sticks. You know curare right, Big Buffer? The muscle poison from certain bushes. Guess how I would know about curare? Hmm. Give up? I will tell you then. I was taught this bush secret from my dear wife more than fifteen years ago. You remember her Big Buffer? Eleanor was her name and her Guyanese father told her about how to make it.
"What that got to do with me?"
"I will tell you... I will tell you, brother. But while I do, I will continue to put some things in place before your interview starts. That curare will wear off in a while, if you are still alive by then, you will be free to leave. The rope between your legs will help you to get out of the net."
"Miah David, you don't have the guts to kill anything but fish, and even then you feel bad for them. You can't kill me!"
"You might be right... But if you die here this morning, it will be by your own hands," said Miah repositioning tables in the room.
"You madder than I thought," said the limp man swaying in the fishnet.
Miah David spoke while he worked. He emptied a box of dominoes onto the table and began arranging them, standing tall and close to each other in a line.
"You remember how I lost my eye Buffer, do you remember? We were playing dominoes at the fish carnival by the beach fifteen years ago and you got upset at losing a game and flung a tile at my face. Hit me right flush in the eye Buffer. Remember that night?"
"You should have ducked."
"Well this morning is not so much about my lost eye, but the tile that you threw, it was a 'one-five'. Just like this one here. I will tie this string around it and put it right at the end of this line of dominoes. That is important for you to know."
Miah was finished with his preparation and he sat on the floor against a wall, right on a big 'X' he made with tape. It felt good to finally sit down. His back was sore from all the bending and lifting. He paused to look around the room to admire what he had achieved. A mini engineering feat he thought, with all the levers and hinges. This was all for Eleanor, he thought happily, she would have been proud of him. But then the sadness rushed in again to fill the aching void. His lower jaw quivered as he fought back tears, but he managed to steel himself. The next few minutes would require a sterner focus.
"The string from the last domino tile is tied to something, Buffer. I want you to look up behind you, into the rafters."
Big Buffer obeyed and made out a crude appearing crossbow with a black-tipped arrow pointed in his direction.
"If that domino falls it will release the trigger on the crossbow and that curare-tipped arrow will hit you in the back. It is far more potent than the ones from before. This one will stop your breathing muscles and kill you in a short time. All you have to do is answer truthfully and the dominoes will stay upright," explained Miah.
"I will not take part in this crazy game. I am a grown man with loyal friends," said Big Buffer.
"If you don't answer I will count it as a lie anyway. It is up to you, Inspector," said Miah.
"Cut me down from this net! Cut me down from this rafter now!" cried a desperate Buffer.
"Look closely at that rafter Buffer. I do... all the time. You are hung from that rafter because this is the one I found my pregnant Eleanor dead and swinging from. She hung herself from that very beam of wood, Buffer Hackett."
"Jesus wept, Miah David!" cried a wide-eyed Buffer. "Cut me down!"
"Be quiet and listen carefully. This is your first question: when my wife and her sister came to your police station twenty-one years ago to pay for the permit to sell alcohol for the fish festival, did you rape both of them?"
"No...No that never happened like that. They wanted me to do things to them. They were asking for it."
Miah knew this was a lie. The two sisters did, in fact, go to the police station to apply and pay for the permit. Miah had been too busy setting up his stall on the beach and had asked his wife to do it for him. A likely bored Buffer was the sole policeman on duty that evening, and he took both girls into the back holding room. He made them parade nude before him and then raped them both under the threat of deportation. Miah found out later that both sisters became pregnant that evening.
"She and Linda kept that secret from me for nearly eight weeks. Never said a word to anyone, but I knew something was wrong. When she finally told me she was pregnant I told her it was alright and that I would raise the child as mine. But she could not do it. She felt so constantly ashamed and contaminated by your seed. You know what she did Buffer? She hung herself. Right there, because of you!" blurted Miah.
"No, none of that is my fault."
Miah reached above his head and released a lever with a playing card at the base of the rod. It swung like a pendulum right over the first domino tile. The wind, from the passing card rushing by, did not move the tile at all. The arm swung back and clicked in place over Miah's head. He added another playing card to the base.
"Here is your second question: have you ever beat up innocent men into confessing crimes they did not commit or falsify evidence before the court to get convictions?"
There was a gruffy snort from Buffer, but no answer was given. He watched though, as Miah reached above his head and released the pendulum arm for the second time. The displaced air rocked the first upright tile, but it was not enough to topple it onto its brothers. Buffer realized then that Miah was serious about his mission. But something else was happening. He was regaining strength in his limbs. He could swing his legs a bit and even clench his fist. Miah sensed him trying to think how he could buy more time to get up from the fishing net. He moved his hands closer to the rope coming through the net between his knees.
"Here is your third question: Linda bore your only child, Vernon. You grudgingly admitted that he was your son from that rape. You toyed with him in your shady schemes and pretended to all that you cared for him. You used the poor boy as an informant. So tell me, Big Buffer Hackett, where is Linda now?" demanded Miah.
"She left...I swear she just up and left and went back to Guyana ten years ago!" said a nervous Buffer. He was anxious to buy more time for more of his strength to return. He now had a pretty firm grip on the rope end.
"So you don't know anything about her dead decaying body I found in a bushy ravine. You don't know how your son's mother had her head bashed in and thrown down into a garbage ravine? I found her, Buffer! I buried her, Buffer!"
"I had nothing to do with that. She fell..."
Miah reached up and released the lever. The long arm pendulum, with the third card now at the bottom, was in flight. His expression was dour and blank. Behind his single functioning eye was a universe of sadness. Sadness that the obese ex-policeman before him had caused. Both he and Buffer watched the first tile teeter on its edges... then tip over from the draught of the cards. It toppled into the next one, and the next one, and the next, all the way down the line. Buffer held his breath as the final tile, the 'one-five', bound with string, fell off the table and tripped the crossbow trigger. The black-tipped arrow flew straight and true from the ceiling and sunk deep into the target's shoulder.
Buffer Hackett shrieked. Then he fell silent and opened an eye. The arrow missed him. Then he let out a laugh. A deep raucous laugh. The arrow was lodged firmly into Miah David's shoulder area.
"Haaaaaah! You missed, You missed me! Now it is you that will be paralyzed and suffocate!"
"I didn't miss. I never miss. I just wanted to make sure that I couldn't help you in the fire," said Miah bleeding, smiling, seated.
Buffer Hackett was almost back to full strength, but he still could not get out of his hammock-like confinement. The rope that lay in his lap was the key and he could just grip it now with both hands. He pulled with excitement and hope at the prospect of becoming free. The prospect of kicking Miah David in the head before he stopped breathing. But the rope, the rope was split like the tongue of a serpent. One end tied to the glass container of kerosene and the other tied to the lit oil lamp on the floor, on the opposite side of the room. Buffer pulled and heaved and they collided under the net, shattering both the container and the lamp.
To Miah, it looked almost like an orange carpet on the floor. Beautiful and warm. Just like his love for Eleanor. He closed his eyes and whispered a 'Good morning' to her. He heard Big Buffer's struggles of course, but they were relegated to an unimportant frequency in his mind. He was calm and he was at peace. He was coming home, after all.
Not far away, just down the hill, Scotty woke from her spot under the rum shop. She stepped out and howled. She howled for the very first time ever and stopped only when she heard the siren from the fire truck.
Twig had spent the night on the porch of the community center overlooking the bay. He sat up from the flattened cardboard and hugged his knees when he heard that wailing siren. He knew, somehow, the meaning behind that sad song.