Finalist for the 2021 Barry Hannah Prize in Fiction
In the late 70’s and early 80’s a commune called Hell’s Valley was active in the north coast of Trinidad, where a group of people identified as The Earth People, settled and were guided by their leader, Mother Earth.
Who is I?
I is Cassava.
Before I name Cassava I name Michael, but once I join Hell Valley, Mother Earth tell me I have to pick a new name, a fruit or root name, and I couldn’t choose either of the two fruits I love, Breadfruit and Pineapple, because the skinny bald-head fella who always smoking grass under the palm tree already take the name Breadfruit, and one of Mother Earth children who she make under the roof of the wooden cocoa house was name Pineapple, so I say I go take the name Cassava. I is part of The Earth People for two years now, since 1980. Plenty Rasta’s like me join after they see how the country going downhill with corruption and spiritual decay, how the government don’t really care about we poor black people, how the churches thieving from the small man and the banks giving loans to the big man, and all this madness taking place under Man’s eye, so Mother Earth was making plenty sense when she tell we how she is really God, how she is the primordial mother, because a man can’t be God and operating like poison on his own earth. So when I see Mother Earth and she crew marching down Port-of-Spain fully naked, and fighting with the police while they getting dragged off the street, I say it have something powerful to that, them people must have real belly to go through with that, and watch how the police terrorizing them for nothing. Is only when I join The Earth People myself I realize how the state really target we and wanted to destroy we, people of the earth. Every year, after we march through the streets, they would send police to raid we settlement. They would send social workers to take we children away from we, they would remove well fed, well taught, healthy children and send them to an orphanage. But Mother Earth teach she children how to resist like warriors, so one time when the social workers come and take her son, Mango, he escape from the children’s orphanage and walk all the way back to Hell Valley, cross highways, cross gullies, through the dense bush and tall proud immortelle trees and walked up the mountain back home. Around that same time Prime Minister Eric Williams did ups and dead, just like that. That give we a small ease up, because while the country was mourning for the Father of the Nation, they wasn’t studying we, so for months we live at peace and plant we sweet potato, dasheen, yams, pumpkin, ginger, lime, sugar cane, tea leaves, plantain, grapefruit, anything you could think of we make grow in Hell Valley. My secular mother, the one who “birthed” I, she name was Perline, and she come down town to look for I after all the years she spend in Canada working for god knows who, and when she spot I in the settlement she hold she head and bawl, “Micheal what is this? Why you naked! What happened to you? Get your mind together and stop frolicking around with these backward niggers, running around naked and senseless. I never grow you up like that. Look at how my own son turn useless and rotten.” I just watch she and laugh because the system already take she soul, she is a big shot now, what she come to look for me for? When she leave to go Canada she just leave me by my aunt with nothing, only sending money for me that my aunt was taking a cut out of to by shoes and cigarettes. I didn’t pass any common entrance exam so I had to take up small work, cut some grass here and there, do some construction here and there. But love and support? I only get that here in Hell Valley from my brothers and sisters of the earth and from Mother Earth sheself. When my mother see I laughing she get more mad, start to cry outside the settlement, so Breadfruit and Coconut and some others start to pelt she with dry mango seeds, and then Mother Earth sheself start to cuss, “You is one of those women who like to worship the white man’s god eh, yes I seeing it from the dryness in your skin and the shakiness of your tongue! Why you don’t move your dutty stinking self from in front the Devils yard and go worship the white god. Why you don’t move!” and I watch as Perline look Mother Earth in the eye, woman to woman, then turn to watch me and say, “I not coming to look for you again Michael, you on your own now,” and I get up off the stone bench and say “Woman, I name Cassava, Michael is the white man’s name, I come from Mother Earth!” My mother watch I like I lose all my marbles, then turn and walk down the hill. But that didn’t do I nothing because I know I was safe here in Hell Valley. Here in Hell Valley where we build huts and boasted almost every Trinidadian plant you could think of, here in we own little Eden we was living in the beginning of the end. And as we start to get stronger, some Rasta’s from far-far south come to inspect Mother Earth, they wanted to know if she was really the Divine Mother, but when they reach up in Hell Valley they meet a reckoning of nature herself, as Mother Earth rise up in vexation and start to mash them up with she mouth, “Men coming up here to inspect me? To inspect me? The true God? It have no man on this earth with the authority to command or bless my dominion! None!” She called upon the three Rasta men and said “You my children welcome to The Valley of Decision. I am the Mother of Africa and India, I am Nature in all her turmoil and glory, I am Mother Earth!” and immediately the three men kneel down in front Mother, it was almost like they could see the power glowing from she brown oily skin, the rolls of fat cascading down her belly and thighs like landslide, her dreadlocks tough like fisherman rope, standing up to the front of the settlement looking at these four Rasta men like the President waiting for a trip from foreigners, that day they knew for sure that she really was the divine Mother Earth, manifestation of true God, but opposition to biblical god, because if the biblical god was ‘right’ then Mother Earth was ‘left’, so yes she was God, but God as in serpent of Life and Nature, and when they heard the word serpent they knew why she called the place Hell Valley, because if she was God in opposition to the white man’s god, she must be the Devil, they just didn’t say it because she rejected that outright. To her she was no Devil, that didn’t exist, that was false doctrine. But as breeze blow, power swing low, and she start delegating tasks to members, giving them small pockets of authority. Grapefruit get to be in charge of teaching and cultivating the minds of the children, Apple was the organizer of all the prayers and marches, and Mango was in charge of spreading the word to other people. And just like a child asking about the origin of waves, people start asking about the origin of Mother Earth, the problem was the people who was asking them questions was the same people she did trust to carry out she orders. Apple was the main instigator, always asking “So what if Mother Earth dead now, who in charge?” And nobody don’t want to answer that question, so everybody just brush him off like sand-fly, but it was always in the back of we mind. Who really go be in charge? What we supposed to do when she gone? Because you could see it, the slowness in her walk, how she was holding on to things just to climb a step, how she would complain about belly pain when she finish eat. She was wilting. So no surprise then when a group of Hell Valley members decide that if Mother Earth can’t heal she-self, then she really is not no powerful divine Mother of nothing, and so what we have here is an organization and organizations does ask people to retire, so Mother Earth should retire and put them in charge of carrying on Hell Valley. I never see chaos erupt so in my life, for weeks it had argument and quarrelling, some people even leave and make they own little settlement down the road. But nobody could see what was coming, not at all. It was three months ago on an early morning that I start to smell the smoke. When I rise I see plumes of blackness just running up to the sky, coming all the way from the front of the settlement, I thought the beginning of the end did reach, so I put my hands in the air and just start to shout “MOTHER! Is we time now!” But one of them small children run beside I and bawl out “Fire! Cassava, run man run.” So I run like crazy, pass the burning huts and small wooden house Mother Earth was staying in, and join the rest of the members in the road to watch the whole thing burn down to ash and dust. Mother Earth sit down across the street near the pavement and cry and cry and cry like one of she own children dead, but nobody didn’t die, it was just the death of togetherness. Because the next day an exodus of members leave the settlement, at least half of them follow Apple to wherever he went and leave the rest of us behind, leave us on burnt ground with a sick Mother, holding on to she life. And one night I lay down next to she and she was struggling to breathe, talking in half sentences, and she say “My name. You know it?” and I watch she sideways, suspicious, because I wondering if it is some kind of test. So I say “Yes, your name is Mother Earth” and she hold my hand and say “Yes, but my real name. My name is Jeanette. Tell them that when they ask.” But I was confused. “When who ask? Mother what you saying? Tell who?” But like she did start to drift off, and the next day she dead stiff in her sleep, quiet-quiet like the movement of sand from shore to ocean bed, she just depart the earth, the same earth she claim to own. Just like that. And I don’t know who call the police but it had a big crowd in the street that morning, and a man in a suit come with some people in all white and gloves to take she naked body from the makeshift cardboard bed she was on, and then the man in the suit ask we “What is her name?” and everybody say Mother Earth, she name is Mother Earth, but the man in the suit turn up his nose and squeeze his forehead like he frustrated, so he ask again “I would like to know the name of this lady please, her proper name.” So I walk up to him and say, “Jeanette, she name Jeanette.” and he ask I how I know that, and I tell him that she tell I last night, “She say to tell them her name is Jeanette, then she went and sleep.” But the man only look half relieved, because he say she doesn’t seem to have a last name, so he mark down Jeanette in big letters in his notebook and left with the body.
But that was three months ago, I here now recruiting new members, because I in charge. Yes, when the members realize that Mother Earth tell I she real name, everybody decide I was the new divine. So I running the thing now. Although we still sleeping on burnt wood and loose sponge, I already recruit five new members, young and strong and fed up of corruption and lies. I Cassava going and bring back The Earth People, and this time they go know where they come from. I Cassava go teach them about Mother Earth and make Hell Valley everything she wanted, because I know the time coming and she go be waiting to see who was loyal, from the beginning to the end.
AKHIM ALEXIS is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago who holds an MA in Literatures in English from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. He is the winner of the Brooklyn Caribbean Lit Fest Elizabeth Nunez Award for Writers in the Caribbean. He was also a finalist for the Barry Hannah Prize in Fiction and the Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The McNeese Review, Transition Magazine, Chestnut Review, Juked, Obsidian: Literature and Arts in the African Diaspora, Gordon Square Review, Welter, No Contact, JMWW, Moko Magazine, The Caribbean Writer, and elsewhere.