“Ah fed up tell you,” the old man said as he grabbed Remy’s neck and pointed him back to the cane they were slashing, “if they ketch you not working, is crapaud smoke your pipe!”
The younger man returned to his task — the backbreaking labor of men spread across La Resource estate. The estate, one of the several dozen like it on the island of Trinidad, produced sugar, cocoa (or cacao, if you asked the Spanish), and several other food crops. Sugar was the king, of course, and most of the year, Remy worked on the sugar cane part of the estate.
On both sides of him, less than twenty feet away, he could hear the clean schwing of the machetes as they chewed into the cane crop. He was cutting cane from when he was around half the height of the stalks, but little by little, he grew. Now, he could easily pull the long stem towards him, shear off the bottom, spin the cane stalk, and shear off the top before tossing it in a pile on the side of him.
Each man had their own “task” of cane to cut. Once a man didn’t piss off an overseer or one of the White Folk, he could see himself cutting a single length of a field during the harvest season. The stalks were black with soot from the fire that had raged through this field mere days ago to clear it of any pests and undergrowth. Remy knew that they had to work so fast because the field itself would become overgrown once again when the rains fell.
The White Folk planned the harvest for just before the rains came since it guaranteed that the ground would be fertile for the following year. As a result, Remy and his compatriots would have to complete a whole length of a field, cutting several rows before sundown, or else. He didn’t much like thinking about the “or else.”
The burning also signaled the time for the stickfights and reminded him of his father Cera’s death, which almost made him lose his rhythm. He took a deep breath and continued, cutting the cane and keeping up with the sharp sounds of the machetes on both sides.
Not finishing the row in time for sundown meant that he might be moved from the cane fields to somewhere else. The worst place was the mill house. Behind him and the other cutters came gatherers transporting the cane via ox-cart to the mill house. A massive windmill in the middle of this field ran a crusher that would crunch the cane and extract the juice.
The problem with having a windmill crushing cane is that the wind doesn’t obey you when you tell it to stop. More often than not, a person feeding a cane into the teeth of the crusher might get his arm caught in the mechanism. When that happened, the crusher would run and drag the poor unfortunate into gear teeth. The lucky ones died. The less lucky ones had to have their arm cut off, which made them less suitable for certain jobs. They would often simply be sold into another estate by the White Folk to make back some of their money since paying for the upkeep of a worker that didn’t work was unprofitable.
Remy shuddered, thinking about how it would be to lose an arm, and doubled his pace, keeping up with the men on both sides of him. He tried to think about something more pleasant, but the sight and smell of blood kept coming to him. He shook his head, trying to clear it away.
“I hear they stop the stickfights this year,” the older man who was on his left said.
“Where you hear that from?” the man on Remy’s right responded. “You not talking sense.”
“Is true,” Left insisted. “I was hearing talk from one of the women up by the Big House…”
“You can’t trust them,” Right responded. “What make you think they know what they talking bout?”
“Them hear it straight from the White Folk!” Right challenged. “Them say how the stickfighting is training for fighting.”
“Well, they not wrong,” Left replied, “but stick can’t do nothing against gun. We know that.”
“They still stop it though,” Right said with a heavy sigh. “And I was ready to watch them in the gayelle and all too.”
“I still don’t believe it,” Remy chimed in, keeping rhythm with his cutting and shearing. “I go ask and see.”
“Who you go ask?” Left queried. “You know people we don’t know? All of we on the same estate Sai’o.”
Remy smirked. He had his sources.
Still, no stickfighting was a chance the White Folk were taking. Remy knew how much the estate’s men (and women) looked forward to the stickfights. It was almost as anticipated as Le Carnivale, where they would dress up and parody the White Folk without fear of consequences. But here, there would be displays of martial skill, like his father.
He still wanted to learn the bois, but many maîtres du bois would not accept him as a student. They all had a certain respect for his father, and none of them wanted to be the one to train him in the arts of fighting, lest he end up killing himself in the ring. Remy was the only child of his father, and being responsible for ending a line, especially one of such great fighters, was something no master wanted to be a part of.
Remy hated that they had this opinion, and he had searched and asked every single master on the estate and even the surrounding estates. None of them were willing to take him as a student, at least at this point. Several of them told him they would reconsider when he had had a child. Since he had yet to find a woman he wanted to court, the chances of having a child were very distant indeed. So, for now, at least, his opportunity to shine in the gayelle was at a standstill. But then again, he reflected, so was everyone else’s.
The day wore on, and surprisingly it was still light when he and his compatriots emerged at the far end of the canefield. They were covered in black soot from head to toe, but the bright white smiles could still be seen on their faces. That would be one more day they would escape punishment, and one more day they could earn their keep without worrying about being sold off.
“Ah boy, that was a good day’s work,” the man on Remy’s left said. He was a new acquisition by the White Folk, so Remy wasn’t that acquainted with him. He was rangy, with a long stride, close-cropped black hair, and was dressed in what seemed to be regular field-hand clothes that he and the other man on Remy’s right were wearing.
The older man from Remy’s right lived on the estate all his life, and Remy knew him growing up. They were not close since they lived in different areas of the estate, but Remy still recognized his face. He walked slower than the two younger men, with a more stooped or hunchbacked stride. If the new guy continued at his pace, he would quickly leave the old man and Remy behind.
“Don’t walk so fast, nah,” Remy chided the newcomer, who turned around with a grin on his face.
“I sorry, I just hungry,” he said.
“Which part you is?” Remy asked, trying to gauge where the man lived on the estate.
“Far down there,” he gestured to one of the lanes between the fields purposely left bare as a fire break. “A little ways behind the mill.”
Remy nodded. Not many of the people who grew up on the estate lived behind the mill. It was reserved for new acquisitions because they were closer to the keen eyes of the overseers. “How long now you come La Resource?” he questioned as he caught up to the rangy man.
“Two, maybe three weeks now, I think?” the rangy man said. “My name is Armand.”
“Remy,” the young man nodded. “That is Cortuois,” he said, gesturing to the hunched, older man who was also just catching up to them.
“You don’t have to introduce us,” Cortuois said as he caught his breath, “he might be gone before too long. You know how La Resource is.”
Remy nodded again, more solemnly this time.
“What you mean, how it is?” Armand asked, a little perturbed.
“They does sell people plenty from here, boy,” Cortuois replied before Remy could form a response. “Especially the new ones. Even this boy here, his mother, went soon after he born. His father raise him, and then his auntie. But if you not born here, you don’t know when you gonna just go.” He snapped his fingers to suggest the finality.
“You going to scare him,” Remy chided Armand, who simply sucked his teeth and walked on in annoyance. “Don’t study him. He just old.”
“But what he say, about people disappearing…” Cortuois asked, “…is true?”
Remy chuckled. “You does hear all sorts of crazy thing from the old people,” he said with a grin. “If you believe them, the world going to end tomorrow.”
Cortuois relaxed a bit, and his shoulders sagged. Remy patted him on the shoulder, and he responded with a tired grin.
“I feel I heading in now,” he told Remy, “tomorrow we have task again.”
“Bright and early,” Remy replied with a smile. As the new guy left him, the young man started at Cortuois’ retreating. He hoped he would see him again.
The barrack yard was abuzz as it always was after a workday. Remy was early compared to some of the other task cutters, but many men were still in the barrack yard. Smoke came from several pots out in yard, the mixture of scents making a heady stew that made Remy’s stomach grumble. When you were cutting task, you didn’t have time for lunch. You could get flogged if someone caught you taking a break and told the taskmaster. If you got seen a few times, the White Folk would start considering you lazy and then maybe sell you off to somewhere new.
Remy had lived on this estate all his life, and he didn’t like the idea of ending up on a new plantation just for taking a break. It’s not like he needed the break, either. He was young and strong and could work from sun up to sun down. Older heads like Armand could do the same, but he noticed the older man would take breaks now and again and catch up with the others as they cut down the lane of stalks.
Flambeaux lit up the evening, even though the sun was only just going down. Rags soaked with kerosene stopped the mouths of clay bottles and calabash gourds. Inside the containers was a little bit of kerosene, or “pitch oil” as they called it, to feed the flame. These lamps burned with a vengeance, leaving black soot on whatever the tongues of flame touched. Still, they were the most reliable lambs they had. They provided enough light to see by, and many people in the barrack yard slept early to preserve their ration of pitch oil.
Remy lived all the way to the end of this barrack yard. La Resource had several yards scattered throughout the estate. The overseers would set aside land for new barracks when the incoming laborers had to increase. Remy thought that there was always a new yard being built during the harvest season, but after the season, the yard would be dismantled again, and the laborers sold on to other estates. La Resource kept some, but most went to other parts of the island.
He had heard about men meeting their friends again during the night of a stickfight, where different estates met under the moonlight. The gayelle was a magical place, enabling these meetings. It was also the only way some men knew their friends were still alive. Remy hadn’t considered getting to know many of those new laborers when they came to La Resource. He had seen what being attached to people did to you when they had to leave. He kept to himself mostly, even though he would speak with almost anybody. No, he would stick close to himself and his family.
The only close family he had left was his aunt. She was too old to be sold on and would probably remain on the estate till she died. Remy had considered death many times since his father’s demise. What was on the other side? Would it be something to look forward to? Or something to fear and run away from? He remembered feeling a sense of loss when his father had died and wondered if his mother was alive. He couldn’t even remember her face. Only his aunt’s face came to him out of the gloom when he thought of a mother.
Aunt Kemina was a strong, independent woman who would not tolerate any backtalk. She raised him as best she could after her brother died, and she had ingrained a sense of self and responsibility into him. He knew he owed her, even though she never reminded him of that. It was an unspoken feeling that lay between them that both acknowledged, but neither highlighted.
After a day cutting tasks, he was eager to come home to her again. He felt confident that she would never leave him, aside from if she would die. It was possible — she was not a young woman anymore, as she was fond of telling him. While a strict authoritarian, she had become much softer with him as she aged, noticing that he was also growing up and learning about his responsibilities. Remy couldn’t remember when she started treating him as an adult, but he was glad for it. Because of her strong upbringing, he wouldn’t find himself wasting his time in idle pursuits or gambling away his meager possessions. Many of the men on the estate were deeply in debt to others, and those debts were sometimes more than money. They traded in favors, whether for assistance or information.
He was almost at his aunt’s house now, and he quickened his steps. He would ask her about the stickfighting ban. If anyone would know, it would be her. She kept her finger on the pulse of the plantation, and she talked a lot with women by the stream when she did laundry. Some of those women also worked at The Big House. They would hear about any rumors that might float up about there being a ban.
Even though Remy couldn’t compete in the gayelle, he still didn’t want to see it end. Each fight he went to in the past was a bittersweet memory. He could never forget that night’s moves, the finality of the last blow, and the lifeless stare in his father’s eyes. Yet the gayelle also felt comforting. It helped him remember his father’s legacy and yearn to someday enter the ring.
“Auntie K!” he called as he spotted the house, but immediately he felt something was wrong. There were no lights on. His aunt was a stickler for light, and they would typically have more gourds and bottles around the entrance to ensure it was always covered in that home glow. Not tonight, however. Tonight, the porch was dark.
“Anybody see Auntie K?” he asked no one in particular.
“She went washing earlier,” a woman replied. Remy looked at her, recognizing her as their neighbor, Ella. “I thought she did come back already.”
“What time she went?” Remy asked, wondering if she had gotten caught up in gossip.
“Middle of the afternoon,” Ella replied. “I did meet she going when I was coming back. Ask one of the girls who come back after me; they might know which part she went.”
Remy’s stomach grumbled, but that wasn’t important now. What was important was finding his aunt. “Who you think I should ask,” Remy fished.
“Gayle and she sister, Patsy was there when I leave,” Ella suggested. “Me didn’t even know she didn’t come back home yet,” the woman added. “If I did know…”
Remy nodded but said nothing, turning on his heel and heading back up the thoroughfare of the barrack yard. He was going to find his aunt and woe be unto anyone who tried to get in his way.