Lucille and Clifton (a Christmas-time Caribbean tale of gothic horror)

by jhohadli

Any other year, Lucille wouldn’t have been at the Museum Christmas Party. But there were still pandemic restrictions on and this was one of the few events allowed. It was out in the open in the courtyard and the numbers weren’t expected to rise above 50. She was there with her parents, who were regulars, and who were just as surprised as she was when she said “sure” to their pro forma invitation to tag along.

During the car ride over, she tried to tune out her dad’s lessons about the old building. How it was a courthouse built in 1750, and one of the oldest buildings in St. John’s City.  Nineteen years of life in Antigua and he thought she didn’t know that?

Tell it to the tourists.

At least, they might be impressed.

To Lucille it was all ladies in bustled dresses of fancy fabric and men in wigs of white lamb’s wool, both in stilettos that echoed like goat hooves which she imagined were useless on Antiguan roads even then.  

The layout was nice. Sorrel spiked with Cavalier, fruit cake so well soaked the fumes alone burned your eyes. Who knew history buffs liked spirits so much. She could hang with that.

But when the caroling started, she escaped through the door to the right, just after the three-arched stone entrance, before the main door to the museum, sat in the dark on the wooden stairwell which from memory she knew took a circular route to the upstairs gallery, and did what any 21st century girl would do. She dug out her phone.

She meant to DM this or that friend but found herself scrolling through Twitter instead. To the distant strains of an Anglicanized sounding rendition of the calypso Christmas classic, “ho ho ho, ho ho ho, how will Santa get in”, she skimmed gossip about the two Megans and stories of winter chill and icy roads, and for the first time felt the disconnect of it all. Like they were all there but somewhere else at the same time. Lucille found herself wondering if there was a word for that, being both here and there, and feeling like you’re nowhere in particular. And given that she was a 21st century girl with all the impulsive idleness that that implied she googled this feeling, only she didn’t quite know how to describe it. So she did what everyone has to do at some time or other and just sat in it as the carolers “ho ho hoo’d” and the light from the screen did its best to push the shadows away from her.

She looked around at the too close just over the shoulder sound of a woman’s laughter, the kind of laughter girls of any century make when men and women make time together. She wondered if she had snuck in to someone else’s secret spot but when she raised and turned the phone around she was still the only one there in the wooden stairwell of the old courthouse.

“Lucille,” she heard a voice say, only it was barely a whisper and she didn’t recognize it at all. It was a man’s voice. Sure someone was playing games with her now, but still reluctant to return to the old people party, Lucille went up the stairs. The slowness with which she moved was of necessity. She remembered how when school would bring them here as children and tell them it used to be a courthouse, she found herself wondering how shackled men – and women, she supposed – could even begin to navigate these bruk-ankle stairs.

That was why she crept, now, in the near-dark. She might be wearing sneakers and not stilettos and she may not have any shackles around her ankles but these stairs were still impractical and treacherous. And the whinny of the horse that caused her to jump was…improbable. Laughter was one thing, the whisper of her name another, but no way there was a horse in this old building.

She considered going back down at the whinny, a sound she barely knew from westerns on TV. But was oddly comforted by the feel of her phone in her hand and the knowledge that her battery was mostly full. What couldn’t a 20th century girl survive with this arsenal? 911 was a single touch away.

She pressed on.

At the top was the double wooden doors to the gallery and they were wide open, which, maybe, wasn’t unusual.

She heard the bark of a dog, close close though she couldn’t see any. She could picture it though, small and underfed but full of fight. And she heard the horse whinny again. In her mind’s eye, she could almost see the scene, the dog being a pest, the longsuffering horse finally rearing up, the dog scurrying off, still barking as if to say, I may be running me but I’m not scared.

Lucille followed the sound, through the doors of the upper deck, drawn as if on a string to the east windows. Where there was light filtering in from across the street, light brighter than the streetlights, blinding like daylight.

And it was, because when she peered through the window it was to the sight, on the other side of Market Street, of the type of scene that gave the street its name. Except the public market was all the way at the other southern end of Market Street, and these people dressed like they were re-enacting a scene from slavery times for Independence, long dresses and cattas, crocus bag pants and half a shirt, if any. The whinnying made sense when she caught sight of a bedraggled yet dignified looking horse attached to a makeshift carriage – not a proper one, and there was the dog licking at something that had landed on the ground. It was brown and scrawny.

She knew without being told that it was Sunday market because back then Sunday was the only time enslaved people got to themselves and that was when they took themselves and their wares to the market. She knew without being told that it was the only time they had time to themselves like this to meet up and just be.  

She had learned this in school, that they walked miles and miles to market from plantations in the interior run by white men with peeling pink faces and frowsy smells, because she imagined everybody smelled back then, and white people, even now, couldn’t manage the Caribbean sun.

For herself, she couldn’t imagine walking that kind of distance, but supposed it would give her tired feet wings, the opportunity to for a Sunday forget the chains around yourself, the whips ever at your backs, to feel something like human again. She could imagine that.

What she saw across the street was something she hadn’t quite been given the information to imagine as a child in school though. The way the market was an opportunity to meet up with town folk and people from other plantations, talk about things other than the plantain and reaping of sugar cane. To remember what it was like before coming here though here already for several generations, and memory slips through time as cassava flour through a sieve. She saw the way they watered the memory with their sprinklings that were hardly enough to gather in your mouth and spit. But it must be enough because Lucille can catch pieces of it, these hand me downs of knowing. She knows turned corn meal is fungee, and that’s what they call it too, there in the Sunday market, and that’s what they called it across the water before they came here. That’s something they passed on and the knowledge of that causes her to glow like the ball itself, like the light of day as they move about with a freedom allowed them only in this square patch of land across from the courthouse. Though they would tief other freedoms while there. She saw that too.   

There, she recognizes him, Clifton. “Yes,” he says, “and you are Lucille.”

And she wants to tell him she is not his Lucille, but she is not sure if that’s true because her pulse quickens at the sight of him and her breath catches like lovers in a romance. But what romance can there be here for two enslaved people, one from town, one from country, here at the Sunday market.

They find it a kindahow nonetheless. Because they are laughing and swaying, there by the djembe where more daring couples dance the bélé. Away from which he tugs her as the sun begins a slow dip. They have time to sit near the dock, just down the road from the court house and market, out of sight. She tells him how the boats come regular, right there, dragging dead and halfdead bodies out from below. They take them to the barracoon on Nevis Street, she tells him, and sometimes some like her does sneak them bread and water or something more deadly if they wish it, before the day comes for them to be paraded on Thames Street while others like her massa and mistress observe and make purchases as if buying saltfish or cloth.

And Lucille can see clear as day, there attending her massa and mistress, the way the eyes of those being sold away does look haunted. Like half of them know they have to go on living and the other half waan fu dead right there where they stand because there is no point to going on when you not living.

And she feel Clifton caress her, his coffee bean hand against her cinnamon skin, say he understand that feeling. Lucille, she not sure which version of herself, feel her breath catch at the thought that this solid and bold young man who catch her eye could ever feel so hopeless.

And he tell her bout life as a field slave in the first gang, how you work sun up to sun down, brainless and dog-tired, sometimes wishing you could be a driver yourself with the whip in your hand, if only to not feel it at your back.

And Lucille, as she sop his brow and kiss his neck, think back to how slavery is slavery is slavery because she not in the hot sun but she in easy reach of mistress’s slaps and pinches, and massa, the way he pinch the fleshy parts of her when he full up of cane juice and heat, and though she don’t own sheself she lock up as much of herself as she could tight tight and seal it up in a calabash.

But the calabash starting to crack and she fraid because she in town and he in country and theirs is a Sunday tryst, and even if it was all week, they still don’t belong to themselves, and can’t give themselves to each other freely, and can’t gift any pickney they would have a freedom they themselves never know. Lucille, both versions of her, get angry at the way love give you hope and remind you of how hopeless everything is same time.

They make love there down by the dock, and she hadn’t yet started to show when she hear whisper of bakkra plan to end Sunday market. They didn’t like how it put ideas in the slave an’ dem head.

When all hell break loose she know Clifton tried to find her but she didn’t see him again until they had him and all the instigators up and down those courthouse stairs to answer for their crimes and burn for it. He was shackled. The next and final time she saw him, his head was on a spike with the other ringleaders, and flies was crawling over it. And the burning smell was lingering like it would never leave. The smell of it enough to make her nauseous so that she vomit night and day, and mistress beat her when she realize why and threaten to sell off the baby, so that Lucille couldn’t dream nothing but to throw herself off the wharf, though she couldn’t swim, right there near where she and Clifton does sneak off to on Sunday market.

When the smoke made her choke and sneeze, Lucille came back to herself there at the east window of the upstairs gallery at the Museum. She was crying long water and she heard someone say, “don’t cry, Lucille,” but when she looked around no body was there.

And the light from the window was gone.

Lucille high tail it down the stairs in the dark, having forgotten the tether of her phone or anything else anchoring her to her time, twisting her ankle in the process. The door was locked. She beat against it but the caroling was too loud. They were singing another Caribbean Christmas classic, “Hurray Hurray Hurrah, Hurrah Hurrah Hurray” and nobody heard her. She collapsed there at the bottom of the stairwell against the wooden doors of the centuries old building, the smell of smoking flesh still clogging her lungs and tickling her nose.

And it was only when Clifton’s hand rest on her back, a gentle caress to calm her, that she finally settled down.

Maybe she just cried herself out, or maybe she passed out. Either way, she lost time and didn’t find it again until the caretaker opened the door after the party to return chairs to the upstairs gallery and lock it up. Lucille’s parents had been having such a good time, they hadn’t even noticed she’d slipped away and had only just begun to look around for her.

“Lucille, wha happen to you yuh sick?” They asked, as they helped her to her feet.

This is a prompt response. The prompt, via Snapdragon Alcove, for its Very Dickens Christmas was to write “any type of ghost story from gothic to modern horror and anything in between”. I haven’t responded to an online writing prompt for a while and I had time today. It’s Boxing Day in Antigua! I started free writing and this location and the reading related in it provided some inspiration. I did one major rewrite and some minor editing before posting. I wanted it to be Christmas, gothic, Dickensian and, of course, true to the characters, inspired by the history, leaving room for imagination, and, because I’m me, Caribbean.

The image on the right is of the “Negroes Sunday Market in Antigua” in 1806 and the image to the left is of the courthouse, from 1823. It goes without saying that this is a work of fiction but I’m saying it – there was a Sunday market uprising in Antigua, but this is not a historically accurate re-telling of it nor its fallout; just an imagining by Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse.

2 thoughts on “Lucille and Clifton (a Christmas-time Caribbean tale of gothic horror)

  1. Pingback: 2022 December Wrap-up – Snapdragon Alcove

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