From “Pig Head”
On my first visit to Jamaica I saw a pig’s severed head. My grandmother’s sister Auntie had asked me to grab two bottles of Ting from the icebox and when I walked into the kitchen and pulled up the icebox lid there it was, its blood splattered and frozen thick on the bottles beneath it, its brown tongue lolling out from between its clenched teeth, the tip making a small dip in the ice water.
My cousins were in the next room so I clamped my palm over my mouth to keep from screaming. They were all my age or younger, and during the five days I’d already been in Hanover they’d all spoken easily about the chickens they strangled for soup and they’d idly thrown stones at alligators for sport, side-eyeing me when I was too afraid to join in. I wanted to avoid a repeat of those looks, so I bit down on my finger to push the scream back down my throat.
Only two days before I’d squealed when Rodney, who was ten like me, had wrung a chicken’s neck without warning; the jerk of his hands and the quick snap of the bone had made me fall back against the coops behind me. He turned to me after I’d silenced myself and his mouth and nose were twisted up as if he was deciding whether he was irritated with me or contemptuous or just amused.
“Ah wah?” he asked. “Yuh nuh cook soup in Canada?”
“Sure we do,” I said, my voice a mumble. “The chicken is just dead first.”
He didn’t respond, and he didn’t say anything about it in front of our other cousins, but soon after they all treated me with a newfound delicacy. When the girls played Dandy Shandy with their friends they stopped asking me to be in the middle and when all of them climbed trees to pluck ripe mangoes, they no longer hung, loose-limbed, from the branches and tried to convince me to clamber up and join them. For the first three days of my visit, they’d at least tease me, broad smiles stretching their cheeks, and yell down, “This tree frighten yuh like how duppy frighten yuh?” Then they’d let leaves fall from their hands onto my hair and laugh when I tried to pick them out of my plaits. I’d fuss and grumble, piqued at the taunting but grateful for the inclusion, for being thought tough enough to handle the same mockery they inflicted on each other. But after the chicken, they didn’t goad me anymore and they only approached me for games like tag, for games they thought Canadian girls could stomach.
“What’s taking you so long?” My mother came up behind me and instead of waiting for me to answer, leaned forward and peered into the icebox, swallowing hard as she did. “Great,” she whispered. “Are you going to be traumatized by this?”
I didn’t quite know what she meant — but I felt like the right answer was no, so I shook my head. My mother was like my cousins. I hadn’t seen her butcher any animals, but back home she stepped on spiders without flinching, she cussed out men who tried to reach for her in the street, and I couldn’t bear her scoffing at me for screaming at a pig’s head.
“Eloise!” Nana called. My grandmother came into the kitchen from the backyard and stood next to us, her hands on her hips. The deep arch in her back made her breasts and belly protrude, and the way she stood with her legs apart reminded me of a pigeon.
“I hear Auntie call out she want a drink from the fridge. That there is the freezer yuh nuh want that. Yuh know wah Bredda put in there? Kara canna see that, she nuh raise up for it.”
“I closed the lid,” said my mother. “Anyway, it was a pig’s head. It’s not like she saw the pig get slaughtered. She’s fine.”
“Kara’s a soft one. She canna handle these things.”
I felt my mother take a deep breath in and I suddenly became aware of all the exposed knives in the kitchen and wondered if there was any way I could hide them without being noticed. We were only here for ten days and my mother and Nana had already gotten into two fights — one in the airport on the day we landed, the other two nights after — and Auntie had threatened to set the dogs on them if they didn’t calm down.
“Mi thought Canada was supposed fi be a civilized place, how yuh two fight like the dogs them? Cha.”
I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up and started to tear up just thinking about it. Nana looked at me.
“See? She ah cry about the head.”
“It’s not about the head,” said my mother. “She just cries over anything.”
“Like I say. She a soft chile.”