When this story ended—or when it began, because who on June Plum Road could tell the difference?—the mermaids were floating at the top of Old Henry’s tank. The green hair of one and the pink hair of the other fanned out on the water’s surface, silky straight hair, and the sparkles in their tails caught the afternoon light. Old Henry laughed when he saw the dolls in his tank, a laugh he would later regret. Because when he looked beyond the mermaids, his eyes made out two forms, the little girls, beneath the water’s surface.
And the mother would go mad when she heard, at least for a while, sitting on the steps in front of her house, legs wide, without panties. A shame a man passing by was the one to call out to let her know. Her people would send for her. News would travel back that she’s now cleaning for white people in New York. Many on June Plum Road wouldn’t know what to do with this information but to wonder if she remembers to wear panties.
Some people would say that they sensed tragedy before Old Henry found the mermaids and the girls in his tank. Lazarus said his chickens wouldn’t lay eggs. After the girls were found, he walked up and down June Plum Road telling any ear he came across that when a whole dozen chickens won’t lay a single egg a sensible man should start to shiver. Mrs. Thomas, whom everybody called Bad Mind Thomas behind her back, dropped the malice she held toward everyone in the district to say again and again, “Oh, a dat mek di dog dem a bark so!” While she walked her dogs, she heard people talking about the drownings in front of the shop. Her husband bought the two fluffy yellow animals because her menstrual blood continued to greet her after a decade of marriage. The dogs laid up on the Thomases’ couch and bed and ate out of her hands like white people on television. This is why people on June Plum Road looked at Mrs. Thomas sideways, which in turn used her to carry malice against everybody in the district.
Miss Marie, who taught fourth grade at the primary school before she retired, said from the hungry way she saw those two little girls move toward any little bit of water with the mermaid dolls, something told her—maybe the Lord, she would add to later versions of the story—that that kind of hunger in anyone, especially children who can’t think levelheaded, wouldn’t do anybody any good. Then there was Toni, Tall Legs Toni, who said that because her C-section scar was itching her, she knew that the Lord was trying to tell her something but what it was she didn’t know. “Di Lawd works in mysterious ways,” she would say to any of the women who paid to have her hot comb dragged through their hair for the Christmas church service. But nobody paid Toni’s sanctimonious talk any mind. The women just fingered their newly straightened hair and hissed their teeth when they left Toni’s house because she was known to visit the Obia man every once in a while when her man didn’t come home.
The Seventh-day Adventist pastor explained to his congregation that days leading up to the drownings he started to worry that something bad was going to happen. The uneasiness even kept him up at night—some nights he would wake up with a piece of worry he had never been handed in his life. And it would be a long time before he could fall asleep again, sometimes not until the sun began to rise. He even started to believe what his mother used to say about curry—that if you ate too much and too often it made you fret. Since it was his wife’s biggest pregnancy craving, he was eating curry more often than before, some days even back-to-back, and his wife put curry in foods he didn’t think could be curried, like the scrambled eggs she put in front of him one morning. But then news came about the little girls and that night he could sleep. And because he was a crying kind of pastor, the kind whose voice would start to crack whenever he preached his Easter or Christmas sermon, or presided over a funeral, he cried after telling his congregation how it turned out not to be the curry after all.
Because Old Henry drank his wife’s cornmeal porridge for his midday meal, the heaviness of the meal and because he’d become an old man prone to paralyzing bouts of fatigue, he slept after lunch. This, even though in his younger days he used to cry shame after a man who let a meal put him back in bed. Later he would say it was as if something shook him awake. He got out of bed, and as he was going outside, his wife looked up from the peas she was shelling to ask where he was going. But he didn’t pay her any mind because all he knew was that he had to go look about his tank. He thought it was the young boys yet again turning his tank into a swimming pool. As wide as the king-size mattress he and his wife slept on, and tall enough so that Old Henry’s feet could almost touch the bottom, the tank was a cement structure behind the house used for collecting rainwater to wash clothes, to bathe, to boil for drinking.
His wife would tell everyone who would listen to her that a crying old man is the ugliest thing to see. “Yuh tink yuh see ugly?” she would ask. “A ole man yuh wan’ fi see a cry.”
Who knew what was story and what was God’s truth, but only Marie opened her window the day it happened, only Marie who could have stopped it, Marie who kept silent amid all the talk of the little girls. She saw the girls pulling a cement block in the direction of Old Henry’s tank, but just before she opened her door to call out to them, she paused to turn down the fire under the pot of chicken-foot soup she was cooking. And when she went back to open the door, she could only stand there with her hand on the handle because she couldn’t remember why she’d meant to open the door. Only when she heard the mother screaming—people a ways over say they heard the mother screaming—did she remember. But if the screams told her anything, they told her it was too late.
But if we were to go back before it happened, Christmastime was what was on everybody’s minds. Not the two little dark-skinned girls, six years old, who everyone always mixed up because they looked exactly alike and their names, Kadi-ann and Jadi-ann, were so similar. Three days after they were dead, it was Christmas Day. On June Plum Road, those who could afford to were eating the goat the men slaughtered, those who couldn’t afford a goat were eating chicken, and those who didn’t have anything made sure to be invited to the homes of those who had extra meat. But the meat took on a disappointing taste that year. Some people thought it was because they had been looking forward to Christmas dinner for so long it was bound to be disappointing. Some of the women said they anticipated it, as food never tasted good when the same hand picking the feathers off the chicken or skinning the goat and chopping up the meat, the same hand dealing with the blood, was the same hand dealing with seasoning the meat, preparing it, and finally serving it unto plates. No one thought to blame the two little girls whose drownings dominated the Christmas dinner conversation.
The girls belonged to the slack woman, who moved to the district to live with her grandmother when her own pious mother refused to keep a pregnant teenager under her roof. The woman eventually took over her grandmother’s house when the old woman died. She mothered the girls without a man and took in sewing because it was all she could do beautifully. She was a dark-skinned, dry-headed girl and not even the kind of dark skin that shone so that everybody, even those who lightened their skin, had to admit that her shade of brown was something to look at. Her name was Pepper because her mother used to suck on Scotch bonnet peppers when she was pregnant. When the child came out from between her mother’s legs and everybody saw she took her father’s dark coloring, the name Pepper stuck. But they used to call her “blackie” or “dry head” when she was in school, and no one had to tell her she wasn’t the kind of woman anybody looked at more than once. Maybe that’s why she lay down for the first man who paid her any mind, even though he was a married man with four children and had only three good teeth in his mouth.
When the wife heard that her husband got some young girl pregnant, she turned up at Pepper’s house with a machete in her hand. Not because she was expecting to cut Pepper—the machete was too dull—but because she wanted to look tough. No one answered the door, so she walked around to the back of the house and saw a young girl still wearing her school uniform sitting on a rock and bending over to scale fish. She knew it was her husband’s baby mother because the girl looked like the right kind of weak-minded to lie down for a man with only three good teeth in his mouth.
The wife only had one question, “How ole yuh be gal?”
The wife left it at that, but later she would tell someone, “Mi see di gal that mi wothless husband a run roun’ wid. A one dry-head pickney who look like seh she could a still suck titty. Mi could a jus’ look pan har an feel sorry fi di likkle fool.”
When she got home, she swung the machete at her husband, but he was quick to jump out of the way.
Before the little girls drowned, all anybody knew about Pepper with any kind of conviction was that she was slack to have children for a married man. They said that even God thought to punish her, giving her two children instead of one. But she could sew beautifully. She sewed the white suits for the deaconesses at the Methodist church. When the reverend’s wife, who everyone thought acted better looking than she was, saw the suits, even she had to humble herself to whisper and ask someone who sewed them.
There are women who say they can feel the bodies pushing against each other, already in competition. But Pepper couldn’t tell—when the babies pressed against her from inside, she felt it as one touch. She craved raw rice. She used to stand over the canister her grandmother kept the rice in, willing herself to resist the temptation, and sometimes she could. Other times she would scoop a handful into her mouth, but only when the craving felt like it would kill her. That’s why when Pepper’s grandmother pulled the first baby out, everything looked all right until her attentive eyes made their way to the baby’s back. She studied the baby’s back for a few moments, finally arriving at a destination. Raw rice stuck to the baby’s skin! And for a moment Pepper’s grandmother held the baby in her hands because the rice did look permanent, like a disease or a disfigurement, but when she rubbed her hand across the baby’s back, her hand came back bloodstained, brushing some of the rice unto the bedroom floor.
All her life, as far back as memory took her, Pepper was constantly craving something. First: sugar from the tin her mother kept it in. These were the days her mother used to comb Pepper’s hair in two, like cow horns sticking out the sides of her head, ribbons hanging from the ends of the plaits. Pepper would scoop a little sugar between her fingers, small enough so that her mother wouldn’t notice. But the cumulative occurrences often revealed the thief, for the fact that she often forgot to reattach the lid of the canister, which invited ants into the sugar. When Pepper was a little older, she used to take a piece of dough from the large lump her mother left sitting to be made into dumplings. She would knead the dough between her dirty fingers and then push it around her mouth before finally swallowing it. Later on, when Pepper no longer wore ribbons in her hair, her mother developed a nighttime craving for water crackers dipped in tea, and Pepper eventually came to share the craving. After her mother boiled water over a smashed piece of ginger, after she poured the water into a cup and added a little sugar and a few crackers to the tea, she would start to eat the whole thing with a spoon, and Pepper would turn up next to her with a spoon of her own. Pepper didn’t need to say anything. Her mother would always push the cup in her direction but not before complaining, “Yuh no feel good if yuh nah lean up pan me.”
And then Pepper craved Lester. But not at first. When she first saw him at the front of the shop, playing dominoes with the other men, men her mother called “dutty” because they were idle, playing dominoes in the middle of the day, she barely noticed him. And then he threw a fresh grin her way, not because he found her attractive, but because she was there, and he was the type of Caribbean man for whom schoolgirls in their uniforms are admired and pursued without shame. Pepper called him “dutty” in her mind, and walked off hissing her teeth. But this was one of those things, the kind where the fruits of flattery wedge themselves where common sense, attraction, scorn, and being seen together in public would be. This was one of those things where a more seasoned man is persistent enough, sweet-talking enough, to confuse a young girl so that she could look at his face and wonder if he couldn’t do something about his teeth, maybe at least not grin so wide, while at the same time glowing under the light of his compliments. This was one of those old-time, grown-man-young-girl stories, nothing unusual in its pages.
And then after Lester got what he wanted, Pepper lost interest. The proximity of Lester’s mouth when she lay down under him, remembering everything her mother told her about how easy it was to come home with a belly, the awkwardness and rawness of the intimacy, all of it shamed her. She stayed away from the shop after that. No more passing by to see if Lester was playing dominoes. One time when Pepper was leaving the schoolyard with her friends, he was standing by the school gate waiting for her, but she pretended not to see him. One of her friends said, “Pepper one ole man a look pan you! Mek yuh no go talk wid him?” They all laughed.
It went on like this for a while, Pepper trying to dodge the three-teeth man, all the while wondering how she could have lost her mind to lay down for such a nasty one. Eventually, Lester lost interest too. He wasn’t the kind of man to chase a woman. One time, Pepper’s mother gave her a basin of rice to pick and rinse. She found herself picking out and eating pearls of rice, something she had never done before. But it didn’t appear out of the ordinary for her, and she wouldn’t put two and two together until her period refused to greet her.
But all of that is history. When the people of June Plum Road knew her, Pepper craved her children. There were school uniforms to wash, a house to look about, and two faces constantly in need of something, even when they were away, in school or playing in the yard at the front of the house. Sometimes Pepper’s mind would remember herself, and she might wonder with a detached curiosity what became of a certain three-teeth man.
The day it happened, the purple flowers of the tree outside Kadi-ann and Jadi-ann’s window were in bloom. Mornings before school, when the daylight flooding through the open curtain of the window forced their eyes open, they lay in bed watching the tree outside their window, elbowing each other every time a bird appeared. They lay this way until their mother’s calls beckoned them to their knees thanking God for another morning, then to meet the cooling porridge she laid on the table for them.
But that morning was different because it was the first day of Christmas vacation, so there was no cooling porridge or the hurried rag Pepper wiped them down with. Neither of the girls liked to be wiped down because the rag was dipped in a basin of cold water, though they knew better than to wriggle or complain because their mother would pinch their necks. Pepper would wash each girl separately. First, the face, and then she would always wipe the insides of their ears, even if the insides looked clean, because she hated to see wax in a child’s ear. To her it made a child look as if she belonged to no one. If Pepper was strict about anything, she was strict about how she sent the girls to school. When the ears were done, she would put the rag over the girls’ noses for any mucus to be blown out, and then the rag was rinsed in the basin. When next the rag was wringed, it would meet the little girls’ backs, stomachs, the spaces between their legs they knew to open without having to be reminded. Then the rag was rinsed again. But that morning, without the obligation of school, the girls lay in bed holding their mermaid dolls and whispering a game where the bedsheets became a body of water. Pepper would eventually appear with the basin and two rags for Kadi-ann and Jadi-ann, and there was relief in gently handling the cold water by themselves.
People who can’t afford nice things want nice things too, the holidays especially bring them about, and so Pepper agreed to sew Vernetta’s Christmas church dress on the agreement that Vernetta would bring her a weekly portion of the freshwater fish her husband caught until the dress was paid off. That was why Pepper was scaling fish behind the house when Old Henry’s wife came to her, tears in the old lady’s eyes. Pepper wiped her hands on her apron and stood to hear what Mrs. Old Henry had to say.
But before Mrs. Old Henry showed up behind the house, Pepper was scaling the fish Vernetta brought over that morning while her mind debated how to prepare it. She knew the girls only liked fried fish when she picked out the bones and they only had to be worried with the flesh, but she didn’t have any oil and couldn’t be bothered to go buy or borrow any. She wondered if Mrs. Old Henry might have a little oil she could borrow, and that was what she was waiting to ask after Mrs. Old Henry said whatever it was that brought her next door with tears in her eyes.
Who knew what stories the two little girls told themselves as they dipped the mermaid tails into the water their mother used to wash clothes? Who knew what magic, if any, they created in the worlds their mermaids inhabited? The dolls had come in a barrel, stuffed between the clothes, rice, beans, canned foods, and various dry goods Pauline’s people had sent her from the States. Pauline, who lived on the other side of Old Henry, had asked her sister to include two dolls in the barrel for payment to Pepper since she was short on cash when she picked up her husband’s new church suit for the Christmas service.
Pauline brought over the dolls, and because she was in a generous mood, a packet of spaghetti, a can of spaghetti sauce, and a can of meatballs. She remembered that the girls were eating their dinner and Pepper was drinking a cup of tea and sewing. Pauline would tell people that the girls looked shyly at the dolls the whole time she spoke with Pepper. When the conversation started to die, she remembered what she was there for, and offered one doll to each girl. Pauline said they looked at her as though she was telling them lies.
Except for a hi and bye when they passed each other on the road, Pauline didn’t talk to Pepper again until after the girls were gone. Her husband told her he saw Pepper spread on the steps in the front of her house showing everybody her business, so it was Pauline who asked Pepper for the phone numbers of her family members. She started calling around until the sister in the States offered to take her.
Pauline used to see the girls holding the dolls when they followed behind Pepper to go to the shop or to drop off sewing at somebody’s house. When she heard about the drowning, the part about the mermaids haunted her days and even her nights. She soon fretted away the baby weight she had been holding onto for five years. Everybody who she told the story to, and she told the story to everyone who came her way, said it wasn’t her fault and had nothing to do with her because they realized a part of her felt some kind of accountability in the whole mess.
They swam those mermaids all over. In the tub their mother was washing clothes in whenever she turned her back because she forgot the soap or wanted to check on whatever she left cooking on the stove. In the buckets their mother left outside for collecting rainwater, or in rain puddles if the rain made a puddle deep enough. Living next to Old Henry, they couldn’t help knowing about his tank. On the hottest days, they saw the boys Old Henry chased from his tank. Pepper had given the girls an old bucket she found in the chicken coop behind the house. They filled it with water and for days anyone passing by could see the girls making the mermaids swim in front of their house. Some people who passed by would smile at two identical little girls so focused on a dusty old bucket. No one would wonder at the stories they were whispering to themselves until they were gone. And people would wonder if the crack along the bucket that traveled down and ruined the possibility of it keeping water was what sent the girls to Old Henry’s tank.
Because of the cement blocks, it seemed to everyone that the girls were smart enough to play in the water without getting into the tank. Recent heavy rainfall had filled the tank, bringing the water to the brim. People guessed they fell in, maybe one started falling in and the other held on to her and that was how both girls fell in. This was the story people told to one another and passed down to their children as a warning. Still, dissatisfaction lurked in everybody’s minds. Did those girls jump in that tank? Were the cement blocks only used as stepping-stones to climb into the tank? They didn’t think they would drown? They had to know they would drown.
The part that bothered people most was why, when the girls were found, they were only wearing their panties. Their clothes had been spread on the grass nearby. If they weren’t going swimming, what was the sense in undressing? An explanation went around and it settled some people’s questions: The girls were afraid of getting in trouble with Pepper if their clothes got wet. But no one who saw the girls swimming their mermaids in puddles in the middle of the road believed that explanation. No one who saw the girls running out of the road when the rare approaching car started to beep its horn was satisfied. No one who saw the girls with the dolls could believe that they could have enough common sense, as far as the dolls were concerned, to be worried with keeping their clothes dry. No one who saw them believed that explanation, because how it was in those old-time stories, how a mermaid could sing a sweet song and turn someone into a fool, was how it was with those two little girls. Maybe because they had never owned anything so good in their short lives.