Guava Jelly

I was a layaway child.

Caratal was a village of grandparents caring for the children of their children. A village trapped in time and at the mercy of the fiery spirits of La Soufrière and the temper of the Atlantic.

I spent most of my childhood wedged between the adults, compelled by their conversations and the sure-handed way they planted, picked, peeled, or pegged their crops. There was always something to harvest, just as there was always comess to share. In April, it was guava picking season, and our yard had the two biggest trees. The neighborhood children would come to our house to run wild and play. The men came with their bamboo sticks and beer cans to coax the fruits from their branches. And the women sat working around immense pots on outdoor fires with wooden spoons that doubled as spanking sticks.

They were making guava jelly – my favorite partner for the homemade bread my grandmother would knead.

They followed no recipe. “Good guava is all you need,” Mummy would say. The measurements were in movements – a pinch of this, a flip of that – an instinct passed down through blood. The ingredients were few and simple, just brown sugar, lime juice, and of course guavas—an unspoiled reflection of all things from our land.

The trick to making the jelly was to use guavas fully ripened and fruits that were still maturing. Half ripened guavas blush yellow and contained pectin – a substance that helped thicken the jelly. The water used to boil them came from the village tap – balanced on the heads of young girls who, when provoked by young boys, spilled most of it before they got back to the pots.

Stories of foreign lands and heroes filled the gaps between the boil and the mash, the mash, and the strain. We would gather around the skirt tail of my grandmother, my favorite storyteller to this day. This was where I first met Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, although the way she told it those famed words had more to do with the back end of a cattle than they did with sesame. My grandmother could twist a tale when the mood struck and had us doubled over with laughter while the substance bubbling in the pots seduced our noses.

We ate the jelly at dusk, the rich yellow goo dripping from slices of fresh warm bread and chins. The way I remembered; it was always served with fever grass tea plucked from our garden. The women would bottle the jelly in whatever containers they could find while the children and men stuffed their stomachs to the fullest. Then the leftovers were distributed equally amongst the families. Everyone would leave with their share and the arrival of dusk.

Memory of Fish

Without the sound of the conch shell, every memory of my childhood would be incomplete. The fishermen used them to summon the villagers, long deep echoes rolled from the sea at dawn and rolled away again, sinuous and spellbinding.

My grandfather and I were always the first to rise. He’d been a fisherman once, not the kind that went out at night with their boats and returned with more fish than they could eat. He once stood in rivers casting handmade lures back and forth, hoping that something, anything would bite. The years had crept up, as they have a habit of doing, and drained him. And like the other villagers, he began to make his way to the makeshift fish market, twig basket in hand and me in tow.

At the mouth of Penance River, the molasses from the rum factory ran thick as – well molasses – and met and muddied the seawater. Wooden fishing boats lay on the sand, listing on their sides like beached whales, their catch displayed in colorful nets and weighing scales. And everywhere were the echoes of the conch shells, the cries of seagulls, the smell of fish guts and molasses, and the deep guttural song of the fishermen:

The fish is fresh and plenty,

The sea done did us well,

So, bring your coins, bring twenty,

We braved much heavy swells.

There is a simple way to scale and clean a fish. My grandfather taught it to me when I first started going to the market with him. I’d watch as he scraped his knife from the tail to the head, removing the sparkling scales in quick motions, always avoiding the sharp finsThe sound was as rhythmic as maracas. He’d then insert the tip of his knife into the fleshy belly and slice it open, seagulls swooping down to claim the discarded guts. We did it right there on the beach because fish scales will stick to anything nearby and stay there forever. He’d then rinse the freshly scaled fish in seawater.

According to my grandfather, there were only two ways to cook fish. The first was to boil it so that the bones are soft enough to swallow. Serve it with yam, plantain, or fried breadfruit on the side. The second way, and my favorite, was to fry the fish whole, eyes and all, until it was bone dry. We did this outside in a copper pan filled with charcoal and lit with kerosene oil. It was a ritual that we shared, me stoking the fire while he flipped the fish, our whispers of ‘needs more oil‘ and ‘time to flip’ like a chant to some ancient fish god. It was a moment and a place that meant something to both of us – although we couldn’t have known it then.

Sometimes I still think of my grandfather perched on a wooden stool flipping fish on an outdoor fire. He wears his worn-out fisherman cap, a piece of twig in his mouth, the corner of his eyes crinkled in pure pleasure, and a memory on the tip of his smile—a memory of a time when he would cast his line and catch his own fish.

Sapphire Blue

I was half awake when my mother left. She wore a blue dress and her retreating figure shimmered in and out of my vision, sometimes as solid as a sapphire, other times as translucent as fog. It was early because the darkness had that opaque quality that gave you a hint of the world but revealed nothing.

I must have stirred because she stopped and turned. I remember that she smiled. I don’t remember her walking back to the small bed where my younger sister and I slept; I must have slipped into sleep then. Moments later when I resurfaced she was there, leaning over me. The heaviness and torpor of sleep tugged fiercely against the nagging fear that something was very wrong. She spoke, words I’ve heard her say many times before. Yet, on this particular morning they felt heavy and dark to my four year old brain.

“Be a good girl and take care of your sister.”

Fading again, I called out her name. “Mommy.”

When I fully woke, she was long gone but the word echoed like a ghost throughout the room.