The Boy, the Girls, the Dog, and I Was There

Canisia Lubrin
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

Art. 37. - Masters shall be required, in cases of theft or other wrongs caused by their slaves, on top of corporally punishing their slaves, to pay reparations for the harm in their own name, unless they would rather give up the slave to the person to whom the harm was done; they shall be required to choose which one in three days, counting from the day of the sentencing, and otherwise they will be stripped of it.
king louis xv, 1723, Code Noir

both whistle and bark

You could say nothing about those three days to turn them into anything unusual. They left us these three sonographs: the boy, the girls, the dog. Still, they float past my life every time the cane fields mature to a sallow red, every time my ear becomes too sensitive

for the ordinary sounds of the day: a whistle, a bark, a chirp, a rail cart rolling, or the sound of someone dying down the road. The boy, the girls, the dog—and I was there for the three days of fast history that lets me find you now with a story, even if I will fail you as the chronicler you might deserve. I take it as record of my own sealed life that Anslem was there for those three days. Anslem knew many things I cannot tell you. He might be a more suitable storyteller, though there is also much about Anslem that escapes himself—stylish, sometimes starchy, and broken through where no one who sits outside him could witness—as though he had been falling through his own life since it began. And you couldn’t catch him, you couldn’t ever begin to know where to stand so you could catch him, or catch up, as he neared the ground with the force of anybody just moving about their business of entering another room in the same world as you. Anslem with his black beret like an eclipsed sun impaled to the back of his head. You couldn’t believe Anslem, stylish, as though handmade from a dark and transparent fabric, had made plans to give the dog to his son just before Ma Rein, the shop lady, arrived. She was nearing ninety years and proud of her glass cabinets that helped the sun illuminate her shop. She said she’d caught Anslem’s two prepubescent girls stealing from the shop, and now, what was she supposed to admit about herself at her advanced age? She who had loved the girls, and the boy, since the day they were born? She who had raised Anslem since his people died while he was still a child.

The dog was called Reptile. Reptile loved to sunbathe in the shade of the avocado tree outside Ma Rein’s shop. Reptile was Ma Rein’s dog only because Anslem, who brought the dog home one day, a mere pup, one week old, said nothing to Ma Rein when he dropped the dog off in the yard, still in her cardboard box, in a patch of strong sunlight. He waved his hand at Ma Rein. Ma Rein was in her expected place, looking out to him from her shop window. From that window she had a clear view overlooking the ackee tree and the avocado tree. Ma Rein waved back to him and nodded and then Anslem stood, pulling his shoulders up with a resolution of deep satisfaction—maybe about the dog, maybe about himself— and then he left.

Closer to noon.

Ma Rein had had a slow morning. Not the way history can be slow but in the manner of old limbs after too many hours behind a bar. Only two of the village children had come in: one to buy a pound of flour for thirty-five cents and another for a half-pound of sugar for fifteen cents. She loved using her old scale with the iron weights. She loved the movement it made from left to right, like a seesaw; really, she loved that it reminded her of her mother’s marionettes. Both that they were dead things that some force in the world made to move and that they were present without being told what to do.

Ma Rein left her place at the counter and poured a small amount of water into an enamel cup. Her favorite red one with the black lip. She sprinkled in it a bit of sugar and she stirred. The sounds of the metal spoon dancing in the belly of the cup filled her chest with a slow gallop. Her shop was on stilts, and its underbelly was a place full of things, condemned things, forgotten and temporary things, things still in limbo of consideration or damnation by whoever owned them last. It was not just a storage for things that Ma Rein could keep outside. Empty or full barrels, tools, a rusting wheelbarrow, rubber boots. People were trusting and were trusted back then. The blueprints of corrupt government hadn’t yet dug deeper cuts into the people’s ways of hard, if quarrelsome, relation. Ma Rein pulled a beaten-up container, long-emptied of margarine, from a blue plastic laundry tub. All the other things around it groaned and collapsed as though they had lost some measure of pleasure and comfort. She turned it over and tapped it twice on the side of one of the concrete steps of her shop. A small wind picked up whatever of the red dirt was falling from it into the rest of her red yard. She walked over to the dog and took her up to her chest, still in her cardboard box, and she laid them down under the avocado tree. The avocado tree was a thing impaled vertically outside the shop, as though it had been put there simply to distemper the laws of gravity. The brilliant green of its leaves painting the air, the stem without a way to lean even in strong winds. On its branches, the usual birds and the sweetest fruit. It fragmented the weather sometimes, leaving the view on the far side of it undisturbed. It was a special tree, a thing beyond occasional sense. It cast the perfect shade for the dog, whose only business would be to grow and look mean and invent the need to protect Ma Rein and her shop from burglars.

Ma Rein poured the water from her cup into the margarine container and lost herself for a moment in the sound. The promise in that reverb that a heart could go on ticking, that some kind of life lay ahead. I think Ma Rein was aware that this was a way to simplify the uncertainty of her days. Some things, I think, can be satisfied by that kind of simplifying. Some things can stand the command of luck over the therapeutic tendency to explain things away to something called destiny or fate, while other things left to this familiar and sharp-ended cliché simply rot. Ma Rein rubbed the dog’s head, and it looked up and opened its eyes. What she saw turned up some horror in her gut. But she quickly came to adore and equally abhor the animal’s left eye, with that vertical slit of a pupil she could not understand. The pupil running tight up and down the dog’s left green eye. She became more immediately confused by Anslem’s simply leaving the dog with the one vertical pupil in her yard without saying a thing about the irregular eye. She would have understood his leaving it in that way had the dog’s eyes been completely according to what everyone expects. Because Anslem is that man satisfied with himself. But Anslem had said nothing, and I was not willing in that instance to, say, intervene about it, or to interrupt his comfort with leaving without a word. Ma Rein ran her hand along the dog’s snout, and along its back and it whined something ecstatic.

She said, “Drink up, your eye them say milk but is water me have. Drink up, Reptile.” And so the dog was baptized.

now about the
…Ma Rein had accused them on the listless quality of the burning in her gut, and what she called the pree-pree looks on the girls’ faces, of stealing one packet of Shirley biscuits from her shop while she was weighing some pig’s tail and cow foot for one of her customers. The girls had come in with their ponytails and their ribbons on their head. Their perfect decorum, and their good afternooooooon, Ma Reiiiiiiiin, so there was no cunning to suspect of them. She knew the girls. We all did. The girls had gone outside in between Ma Rein weighing the pig tails and then the cow foot. They didn’t know that she had been watching them leave, though Ma Rein could not say for certain that she had watched them for the entirety of the time that they were briefly in the shop. But she had that feeling halfway instead of deep down in her belly. I was there when she had asked them, “Hello, sweet things, what y’all pretty girls want today?”

They had laughed the way children often do when they become too aware of the world: tentative, troubled, and absolute. And one of them said red beans for my mother, and another said my mother want Baygone. Ma Rein laughed that laugh that travels from her chest to high up in her nose. The one that made the ants on the banner behind her tremble in their line. And the bees beyond the window shook in their hive.

The others in the shop had been laughing a while now, and none of them seemed to want to stop. Some of the noises could not quite qualify as laughter. It was clear that some of the others in the shop knew to make a sound, an expression capable of forcefully arguing against children—in particular—stealing. Of children—in particular—doing things children ought not to do. Of children—in particular—acting so out of place in the world. Other noises came only inches away from what some might call uprising. The word itself, not the act. The word as in the impressions that make more than reason. Am I making any sense? The multiplying, the swelling of consequence, I mean.

“Reptile here? Reptile know more about the truth than you two,” Ma Rein said. She could not let the girls leave without something hard to think on, and she did not relish this fact.

The girls had been making sounds of their own, too, as I’ve said. Their crying (also by the dueling, doubling, intensified thing it did) became both a force here and maneuvering elsewhere. Finally, they wondered out loud about where to go, what to do to be forgiven, to be liberated from the whole day.

“I will tell your father. I will tell you mama.” Ma Rein knew that even though it had rained earlier that morning, the ground could do with a little more moisture. And so the girls left the shop and the girls did not disappoint the yard its good, dry dirt.

boy, his part in this, closer to sunset on the second day

Anslem had promised the boy a dog when the boy turned eight. Anslem had made him aware that the dog could be his and his alone. The boy would ask Anslem each day why he hadn’t given him the dog, or just a dog, for any dog would do as long as it could be bad and good at once. Anslem’s temper was a kind of peppermint thing. It could erupt but mostly it buzzed and cleared the nose of blockages. The boy has understood this since once when Anslem came close to erupting, he sent the boy to Ma Rein for a few hours so he could have the afternoon to cool off.

Anslem knew that even if his son had been throwing up with excitement for two years and eight months about getting a dog, he would still measure his own worth as a father by the way the boy would see him for the first time as someone capable of keeping his promises, and not merely as the man who consistently annoyed everybody with his irrational combination of spite and calm. The boy would play with Reptile for the afternoon. He would be content to have the hours with the dog, as usual. And when Anslem came back to walk the boy home, he’d make a remark and the boy would forgive him for:

  1. Avoiding the conversation about a dog that should belong to the boy.
  2. Not actually giving the boy the dog that had been promised.

the third day
Anslem would arrive in Beausejour, not to see his son, but dressed in a black suit, wondering at his reflection in a window of a luxurious hearse. Fortunately, the boy had learned not to be shocked by his father’s angst. The hearse is not the worst part of the story here. Anslem had gone to the island due north and a little west of theirs. Anslem often did these trips and, no, it is not a secret that he dealt in matters most people would find hard to get on their own. That week, the news report about Anslem’s friend left the boy pleated in a state of doubt. He did not know Anslem’s friend well, but I did.

Anslem’s friend was the one who had once found god in the office of one Father Jed, who outside of official church duty wore only Birkenstock sandals, black polyester pants folded up his shins, a deep-brown leather belt with the excess hanging low toward his knee, and white cotton T-shirts. There were rumors of threesomes among Anslem’s friend, one Father Jed, and the wife of Anslem’s friend. There was a child, a boy who would grow up to look so much like one Father Jed, who was white, who was middle-aged. And Anslem’s friend would have lost god in the same office as he’d found god. There is that story, which has little to do with Reptile but everything to do with the hearse. Anslem and his friend had gone off on their usual trip due north and a little west of the island for the last time. The news report spoke of decapitations and a boatload of blood and something about waters with sharks and the kind of cargo that caused people to die with great pain. But nobody knows if Anslem had done any of the deeds himself.

The boy left. Anslem with his reflection in the window of the hearse was behind him for the moment and he went home to wait for it all to end.

When Anslem came back to the boy, he asked the boy to fetch from the al fresco shed some pimento wood, his handsaw, the vial of kerosene beneath the black tarp, and the small box of matches. Anslem was planning to cook some ackee with onions and garlic and sweet peppers that he could share with the boy. When the boy came back, Anslem noticed that the handsaw was beginning to rust. Anslem lit a spliff while the boy layered some coconut oil on the saw. And then with the oiled-up saw, Anslem made smaller pieces of pimento wood from the log.

The Boy: I will light the fire. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but I want you to talk.

Anslem: Mi always know you does make good words as any mystic my age.

The Boy: You not going to tell me about that? Anslem: About that?

The Boy: About what it is like to be a mystic your age.

Anslem: If me could-a do what you say, we could-a both be our own self.

The Boy: Who you being?

Anslem: Somebody to be afraid of. Is the only way make we safe out here.

The Boy: I would-a have other things to be afraid of if not you. Anslem: Somebody go write about this chat one day deep in the future and all of Babylon them go say, no, this could-a never be true.

The Boy: Is true about Babylon them. What about the dog?

I go get him?

Anslem: Not this way.

The Boy: When I was seven you say I mustn’t ask no more.

I’m ten.

Anslem: Don’t choose the circus. You don’t never need to keep count for a man who can count himself.

The Boy: What other choice I have?

Anslem: Well, you can say that you don’t have any choice but to stop asking.

The Boy: So, what if I choose the circus instead of staying in this talk?

Anslem: You should-a ask me a question with a answer that not so impossible.

The boy pointed to the sawdust piling up between Anslem’s legs.

The Boy: Okay. Look at all that dust. I want to know more about the dust.

Anslem: I would-a have to tell you half-things, patchy things. How to live with a thing that can kill. How to love with the killing thing. Sooner or later, I would-a have to tell you about the dust.

The Boy: I like this sawdust. Look it red like Reptile fur, red like Ma Rein yard.

Anslem: About the dust. I will tell you correctly as them did tell me when I was your age. God use the dust. Make Adam and Eve. Give them all ting over dominion. And once him make Adam, he take one of him rib on him left side and make Eve. Out of him rib on him left side he make a woman. Eve. God tell Adam and Eve, say they must multiply. And then the woman pregnant. Right? Eve pregnant. And the serpent tell them say, if you eat this apple you go wise like god.

(Anslem said wise, and it sounded like white because he had few remaining teeth from all of his scuffles and whatever else. The important thing to note is that I am always there, though I can never intervene. My only nature is to just be there.)

Anslem: God make you, how you go wise like the one where create you? Now them go and eat the apple. Now them wise like god and now god turn them out of the garden. Dirt god blow in Adam mouth where make him move. Man is dirt. Is dust them make man out of. You see that? The reptile fool them to come and pick apple. You want to be wise? Sure, like god. And then him say never make you touch this one tree there. This tree that make life. And Eve come in the garden come do foolishness. See? Together them eat bad fruit. The reptile trick them. And then god say, See, you reptile, you must lick the dirt of the earth for your whole life. And you must go away from them people. If they catch you, they go crush your head. You mustn’t be like them people who pick the wrong fruit, boy. Don’t be people who listen to reptile, boy. You hear? Never eat bad fruit.

It was in that very moment that a young man came into the yard and said to Anslem: “Ma Rein want to see you. She say you come to see her about your girls right away.”

Anslem lit a fire in the smoke pit. He put a black pot over the flames with water and salt.

“Coming back soon-time,” he said to the boy, who was aglow in the light of the pit.

“I’ll put the ackee in when the water start boil,” the boy said. Anslem left. The sun would set soon.

boy, the girls, the dog, and i
“These lovely girls of yours, my girls, too, they have disappointed me today, Anslem,” Ma Rein said. She replayed the events of how she’d been robbed by the sweetest girls in town.

Anslem listened and then left as soon as she was done recounting. Anslem returned to the boy, a dark cloud hovering with his head. Anslem sent the boy into the living room to fetch his black beret, as he often did when he would go away on his business trips in the westerly stretch between his island and another—and he unlocked his gun box in the shed that he kept under deadbolt. After a few minutes, the boy returned to where he had stood before the roosters’ evening crows and waited for his father to return. He hugged his head as darkness took the seams of the valley and the sky grew red above them.

“The ackee done boil,” the boy said.

“You eat when it cool,” Anslem said to his son. He took his beret and placed it on his head with the seriousness of a skipper facing a sea without a compass.

Anslem made a move to the boy in that same spot again, to go back in the direction from where he’d just come—go inside the house.

“You going back to Ma Rein? What happening?” The boy called out and reached for Anslem’s shirt, unbuttoned, flapping at his sides like wings.

“You have no business in what happening,” Anslem said. “This business? It not yours to have, you hear?”

The boy nodded.

“You going back to Ma Rein?” the boy asked.

Anslem nodded. The boy knew better to than to ask any further about anything at all.

The boy followed his father this time. Anslem’s long strides didn’t do much to keep the boy far behind, though he was lost enough in the wildness of his thoughts that he could not relieve the boy of his misplaced curiosities. He did, however, crush every mosquito that landed on his face as he walked, so that when he arrived and they entered Ma Rein’s yard—almost together—the boy was alarmed to see his father’s face bloodied. The girls were walking ahead away from the shop and Anslem saw them and called out, just as the boy did. Almost together, they did this.

“Both of you,” Anslem said, “both of you stop right here-here.” Then he turned to the boy and said, “I done tell you to stay and eat.”

“I want to eat with you,” the boy said.

It was then that I saw the girls lean against each other. They clenched their hands around a shirt here, a shoulder there. Almost together. And I could not think of anything more probing than this hour for the girls to grow along, not even the river, deep and curled like an endless snake, with its good white noise.

“Daddy, we sorry. We never mean to be bad.” They scrambled around those words, one pushing the other to the fore, teething the words through tears.

Anslem said nothing more than this: “Go home. Go straight to your mother. Don’t look back here or you go turn to salt.”

He turned back to the boy and said again, “This business here, it not yours to have. Go back home. You eat. Eating good is your business. Go now. All I want to see is your back alone.”

There was a silence. Not the kind that follows you taking deep breaths, but the way you can only feel the weight of something heavy on your shoulder because it is just one kind of heavy against another, the way a coffin carried by you and five others can throw silence into your ears while others wail around you.

I saw Anslem draw a gun from his belt as the girls and the boy turned their backs to him and walked away each in their own directions, unsteady. He waited.

When he was satisfied that the girls and the boy were well gone, Anslem turned to the dog. He ran his hand along the dog’s head, caressed its ears. “I know you was bad vibes,” he said. He shot Reptile’s left eye. Reptile dropped, disarmed against any heft and persuasion. Anslem stood watching the dog bleed. And then a tremor passed through him.

Anslem left a commotion behind him, his black beret stuck to the back of his head like an eclipsed moon moving past my life. My life which had been at rest for a decade under a yellow streetlight. But ahead of him, ahead of the boy, ahead of the girls, in the distance, not too far off, a dog barked.

Canisia Lubrin is a writer, editor, and critic. Her books include Voodoo Hypothesis, The Dyzgraphxst, and Code Noir. Lubrin is the recipient of the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize, the Derek Walcott Prize, the Windham Campbell Prize, and other honors. Lubrin is an assistant professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, Canada, where she completed her MFA in Creative Writing.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021


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