The following is an excerpt from Red Jacket, a new novel by Pamela Mordecai.
Mapome began telling Jimmy the story of the Blue Lady of Dolours before he could talk. When he was old enough, they would act it out together: she played the grandmother and he played the children’s parts.
“Long ago, in a terrible hot time, a grandma was leading some sick and thirsty children up a dry kouri, through wasted country, past skeletons of dead animals, in search of food and water. Tired and despairing, she huddled with the children under a dolmen used by sheep and goats, for the sun was fierce.”
“What’s a dolmen?”
“A kind of stone table, Jimmy, a house meant for those who have left us.”
“You mean a grave on the top of the ground?”
“Yes, you could say that. May I go on?”
“The infants were hungry. Their mouths were dry and their clothes ragged and dirty. They missed their parents, so they cried and wouldn’t stop though their big sisters kept blowing in their faces.”
“Why did their sisters do that?”
“So the little ones would stop crying.”
“You used to do it to me?”
“Did I stop?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes you cried louder.”
He said no more, and she continued the story.
“The babies scratched at rashes and blisters that had grown on their arms and legs and chests in the heat, and they howled till their bodies went limp.”
Jimmy would throw his heart into the howling.
“Suddenly, it was quiet.”
“It is well, my grandson, that you are listening, for this is the marvelous part.” She rolled her eyes heavenward to stress the wonder of it and resumed. “Weeping softly, a woman in a blue kiloli appeared from nowhere. She slipped the children’s hands, one into another, and began leading them.”
Jimmy and Mapome’s journey began right then. It looped through the mango orchard in his grandparents’ front yard, round through beds of tomatoes, yam-hills, and clumps of eddoes beside the house, and down to the slope behind.
“The grandmother watched as the tearful woman led the children into the tinder of afternoon. The children wept quietly, like the Blue Lady. Tears washed down their faces, arms and legs, slowly merging to form a stream at their feet.”
Jimmy was good at howling but better at quiet weeping. His features crumpled into a tragic, sniffing, lip-quivering assemblage that broke Mapome’s heart, but she never interrupted the tale.
“After a while, the Weeping One directed the children’s bare feet onto the damp earth. Soon they were stepping strong beside a steady trickle. They bent, cupping their hands to sip the clear water. Near the bank were reeds and plants, white lotus lilies and blue water hyacinths. Small fish swam among the waving stalks. And then like magic, they were splashing in a river, looking for njamra among the rocks, bringing them to the grandmother to cook on a bramble fire.”
Mapome sank to the ground beside a shallow creek that ran for much of the year. Jimmy had discarded his mask of misery. Gleeful, he raced up and down gathering leaves and dry grass for the make-believe fire.
“At the end of the day, they looked for the Blue Lady but she was nowhere to be found. That night, they slept under new gallery forest, bellies full of fat shrimp. Twigs clicked softly and leaves twitched as trees rose beside the river. Tree frogs squeaked in the branches, cicadas cried, and bullfrogs grunted. Night birds trilled. The ripening moon, rimmed with haze, shed a blue light.”
Curled up on the grass, he and Mapome often fell asleep.
Excerpted from Red Jacket by Pamela Mordecai ©2015 by Pamela Mordecai. All rights reserved. Published worldwide by Dundurn Press (dundurn.com).