It was exactly 9:30 am on J’ouvert morning when I met him. I remember the time because I set my alarm for hourly water reminders; the last thing you want is for heatstroke to ruin a good day, and that’s what it was: a good day. The sun was blazing but dry, with a soft breeze coming through to cut the heat a little. In the back of my mind, my thoughts matched the lyrics of the soca music erupting from the truck’s speakers at a volume sure to come with a health warning if this was a First World country. But it wasn’t, not now, and likely not for a while.
My face, arms, legs, and shirt were smeared with paints of all the richest colours; I was matching everyone around me. It was a magnificent sight: a savannah crowded with Jab Jabs, plastic cups littering the grass, incomprehensible but undeniably joyous shouting filling the air to the beat of the music. Whatever our beautiful country lacked – and the list was long by anyone’s standards – Carnival made up for it. People came, people drank, people sang, people danced, and all was well for one weekend a year, dense with shared exuberance.
You didn’t have to join in with the singing or bend your knees to the beat to feel it – this excitement was contagious, airborne. We all felt it, paint in our hair or otherwise.
I’d gone to refill my water bottle and tried not to feel annoyed by how far away the water coolers were and how my friends rolled their eyes at me. Under the shade of a tall mango tree, just far enough away from the dancing crowd to feel uneasy, a row of five water coolers sat half-used and abandoned for the time being. Between the shadows of broad leaves and my preoccupation with refilling my bottle, I didn’t see him until I’d taken two large gulps and our eyes met, mid-swipe of my mouth with my wrist. I jumped. He didn’t. He stared at my clothes and my hair and the paint covering both.
I would’ve said something if I knew what to say, but I didn’t. He didn’t look threatening but looks meant little when we were all smeared in fluorescent colours, and no-one would think me rude to simply walk away hurriedly to the safety of my friends. But he wasn’t staring at me, really. He was staring at the paint, and that disarmed me enough to say: “You want some? They handing it out over by the white truck,” and pointed. One heavy bracelet on my arm clinked against another, a light chime in the wind.
He followed my finger up the knuckles, paused at my cheap costume rings, and didn’t blink. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it and writing it down, I don’t think he blinked once for our whole conversation. And his eyes, let me tell you – and you won’t believe me, and that’s your business – were pitch black all over, like the center of a black-eyed pea, with shadows on the skin around them, like he got in a fight with someone who cuffed him real good, both sides. No whites. His skin was brown, same shade as mine, but it was like coarse, dull sandpaper. His clothes didn’t fit right in ways I couldn’t figure out.
One hand braced him upright against the tree trunk, long-limbed and lanky and … not right. I’ve thought so much about him since then that I can still see him with my eyes closed, and all I can come up with for you is that he looked like someone right out of a crayon drawing by someone with only some talent, not a lot, but not a little either. Just enough so you know it’s supposed to be a person with two arms and two legs, but wouldn’t think twice about it if you saw it hung on a wall in a home or museum. He looked stiff like he didn’t know what else to do except stand there and stay still and stare at the paint in my hair. He opened his mouth and, like his eyes, it was all black, no teeth, no tongue. I remember how he breathed in just then, a shaky, deep breath.
“What… is this?”
I remember my first thought was that he was a foreigner because I couldn’t place his accent and I didn’t believe that any Trinidadian didn’t know what J’ouvert was. Then I thought, stupidly and maybe inappropriately, that foreigners at least had normal eyes and teeth. But I answered.
“It’s J’ouvert morning.”
As if it were that easy.
“Where you from, breddah man? Yuh lookin’ loss.”
His face didn’t change once. His expression, I mean. He didn’t answer my question, either. He took a few uncomfortably long seconds to think and I remember wondering why no-one else was coming to use the water coolers, as if no-one else was thirsty in the February morning heat.
“You – look – free.”
It wasn’t what he said but the way he said it that had me twisting my face like I’d smelled something foul. He still wasn’t looking at me, but at the crowd behind me, still caught up in loud soca and shouting and wining on each other without a care. I looked back at them, trying to spot my friends – I couldn’t. I turned back to him.
I keep calling him “him”, because “it” doesn’t sound nice. Or fair. It’s not like I know for sure or ever will know if he was a he or a she or an it or both or neither. What I do know is that he was real and four feet away from me for all eight, nine minutes of our conversation. I even tried to think about all the local folklore I knew and listed them off in my head – La Diablesse, the Soucouyant, Papa Bois – and none fit. I never told my friends that part. I knew they’d laugh and hoot and howl and slap their knees and say, “Ey, Anjani drunk, yes! Anjani, yuh see La Diablesse fuh real, boy? Yuh see she face?” When they asked what took me so long, I told them I ran into some foreigner who was lost and pointed him in the right direction. “Where he was going so?” they asked. I shrugged, and they didn’t care enough to press.
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t see his point. “Issa free country. Wuh you expect?”
His crayon-fingers scratched at the tree trunk. They looked unfinished, like someone forgot to draw on the fingernails and knuckle lines. They looked just like the rest of him did, like a mediocre artist’s best imitation of a person. When I think about it, I’m glad I didn’t call for help or make a scene, not because no-one would believe me if I told them a creature – something that didn’t belong here or anywhere else that I could think of – was behind the savannah tree (and no-one would), but because I was always the one who talked my friends out of baiting caimans in the river, and stopped them from interfering with turtles crossing the roads. You probably think I’m comparing him to an animal (if you believe me) and I am (do you believe me?) but my point is that I felt – really felt – that if I didn’t hurt him then he wouldn’t hurt me. It’s the same naive logic that got me bitten by my neighbour’s pothound when I was nine, but I held on to it stubbornly ever since.
“How?” he asked. One word. A small question with a big answer that I didn’t know how to give right then, unprepared, still dehydrated and tired from standing and jumping all morning. But it made me sad. I still feel sad writing this out now. It meant that he didn’t know what freedom was, wherever he came from. Maybe his people didn’t have J’ouvert or Carnival or anything remotely equivalent. Maybe they had nothing.
But things can start from nothing. Doesn’t everything? I tried to remember what I could from lessons about our history, about the slaves and indentured labourers and how we exist now because of them. Oppression was like a big hand scooping all them ‘coloureds’ and squeezing until, when it let go (and it still hadn’t all the way), our ancestors shared a culture mixed with all the pieces they brought with them. Something new. Something their own. Our own. I thought about how we still lived in the shadow cast by colonists now oceans away. I thought of the Afro- and Indo- and all other Trinidadians who found a fundamental connection to each other, borne of shared suffering in a new land, and how they found the spirit of creation all the same.
The bracelet on my wrist is heavier now. I twist it and turn it often and feel the thick, solid gold of the beera with its old etchings still shining. I thought about it in that moment, with its delicate cocoa pod design. I thought of my great-grandmother, hard at work on the cocoa plantation with all of her life’s savings on her wrist. Now on mine. Its beauty is an ironic representation of her life, her sacrifice, the sun on her back, and her calloused hands and weathered leathery skin. I’ve never met her, but sometimes, I feel like I know her.
I tried to imagine – poorly, at best – what she thought about on the turbulent journey to the island from the Motherland, who she lost on the way, who was left at the end, and who was left behind, still standing barefoot on India’s red earth.
My ancestors were stronger then than I am now: my biggest hardships in life are privileges that they could only dream of.
Soca pounded behind me. I crushed some bright green paint between my fingers until it dried out on my skin and I stood, careful, on the land that my ancestors built for us. I could’ve done with some more water or a Shandy or a cold LLB.
“Perseverance,” I said. And I left.