Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson
B and B, by now you’ve probably understood what I have been trying to tell you, that I am Coventina Lyncook, the girl who ended up living in England as Coventina Brown. Or, at least, I was. That was fifty years ago, another life. And yet everything is connected.
I know, this must be a shock. I’m so sorry. But there is no one else who can explain all of this to you. I could have left it alone, not said anything, left you two to go on with your lives, but then what? You two have a sister. If I don’t tell you the truth now, before I go, the three of you will be lost to each other forever. I spent so much of my life keeping this from you, but I owe this to you. I owe it to you to let you know about my past because this is your story, too.
a is getting upset, Byron
can hear it in her voice. He looks over at Benny and sees that her eyes are shining. Do they want to take a break, Mr. Mitch asks. Byron nods. Byron needs to step away for a moment, he needs to think. Too many names, places, dates. Should he be writing all this down? No, that would feel too strange. He looks back at Mr. Mitch. Of course, Mr. Mitch. He will have taken notes.
What stays with Byron now: His mother was a runaway bride. His mother had another child. His mother may have been a murderer. Or was she? She doesn’t say. But she doesn’t say that she didn’t kill that man, either, does she? How could Ma do this to them? How could she drop this bomb on them and then leave them to deal with it on their own? Byron turns to look at Benny again. She is watching him with those Benny eyes, her brows pulled together, and then just like that, her whole face goes smooth and she stands up, and Byron sees a touch of the Benny that he used to know.
Benny, the thoughtful one. Benny, and that gentle way she has of offering a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of water that makes it sound like an afterthought, like they’re all just hanging out in the living room, chatting comfortably. Like this is just a friendly break, and not an excuse to stay away from that recording for just a bit longer, a way to step back from the confusion that it has unleashed in this house.
Benny knows that doing kitchen things will help to calm her. She moves slowly as she thinks about everything that she has heard. Did her mother kill that man? No, Benny doesn’t believe it. She refuses to believe it. Her mother ran away because she saw an opportunity. But how is it possible that she and Byron lived with Ma all those years and couldn’t tell that she was hiding something?
Benny throws out the used coffee filter, pulls a fresh one out of a box. She listens to the coffee grains falling from the scoop into the paper filter, breathes in the smell of the new coffee, pretends her mother is right there with her as Benny puts some cookies out on a plate. Her ma never called them cookies, always biscuits. Benny pulls open the spice drawer, just to see. She pokes at bottles of allspice, jerk seasoning, caraway, and tarragon. Seasons of the south and north. She walks over to the fridge in her socks and recalls the sound of her mother’s slippers flapping across the floor.
Benny stands there in front of the refrigerator, letting the cool air fall on her toes, and thinks of the last cake her mother ever baked. She knows it’s sitting in the freezer but she can’t bear to look in there right now. Instead, she leans her forehead against the upper door of the fridge.
This is your heritage,
her mother used to say when they were making black cake, and Benny thought she knew what her mother meant. But she sees now that she didn’t know the half of it.
There was a point, fairly recently, when it occurred to her that Ma would have been orphaned too young to learn how to make black cake in her own mother’s kitchen. Benny reasoned that Ma must have learned how to make black cake from the nuns at the children’s home. Was there such a thing? Nuns who made black cake? Like those sisters who made cheese? Like those monks who made chocolate?
Her mother’s childhood stories had always been vague. Crisscrossed timelines, missing details. A lot of missing details. Benny had grown up with the feeling that there were things her mother had
preferred not to say about her past. She’d grown up hearing that her parents’ upbringing had not been as easy as hers, so she hadn’t insisted on knowing more. Well, she finally has a chance, now, and the thought of it scares her. Benny feels like, the more she knows about her mother, the more of her she will lose.
Sometimes, the stories we don’t tell people about ourselves matter even more than the things we do say. I told you children that I’d grown up in an orphanage, but of course, I didn’t. There’s a reason for this. I had a friend in England who was raised by nuns in a different part of the island from where I grew up. When we met, I was still quite lonely, feeling separated from everyone I cared about, and not sure how, or if, I would ever see them again. Well, she just sort of took me over and filled up some of the empty spaces in my life. And I needed that. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her.
I’m sorry. Wait a moment. Can we just stop, please?
Yes, stop the recording.
I’m sorry, this is so hard.
lly’s father was not coming
back, the nuns at the orphanage reminded her. Her father had gone to heaven to be with her mummy and now, there was a new family looking for a little girl. When the time came to get ready, the nuns kept calling for Elly, but Elly was not interested. Elly was busy digging cockle shells out of the backyard.
There was no sand in these parts, no seashore in sight, only yellow-brown earth. And yet there were seashells here, a million-billion beige and white and pinkish ones and, even at her age, Elly knew the shells were magic. She knew she was living in a land of miracles where anything could happen, where Pa might come back to get her. Maybe he could take her to heaven to be with him and Mummy, Elly had said, but the nuns told her it was way too soon for that, and she’d have to go live with another family first.
A cricket leapt out of the grass and clung to the top of Elly’s knee before skipping off again. If only Elly could stay here until teatime, there might be cake from the ladies who brought things to the orphanage. Elly looked up for a moment, contemplating the aroma of cake, then pushed the stick farther into the dirt. She took a pinch of the earth, put it into her mouth, and chewed on it. She pretended not to notice Sister Mary coming to take her to the dormitory. She hung her head as Sister Mary reached out to take her hand.
“Keep still now,” Sister Mary said, braiding Elly’s hair. Elly’s shoes had been shined and her tunic starched and ironed. Sister Mary smoothed Elly’s shirt collar.
“Look at you,” Sister Mary said. “Your father would have been proud.” But Elly’s father was right there, she wanted to tell Sister Mary. Elly could see him. She had watched him from behind the window more than once, his spirit soaring up among the trees in the shape of a butterfly, his wings glinting bright yellow and black. He would dip down to check on her, fluttering just beyond the glass.
“Oh, look, a swallowtail,” Sister Mary said, pointing to the window, her eyes gleaming. Sister Mary had a cold. She kept wiping her nose with a handkerchief. Her eyes were red and wet. “Largest butterfly in the entire region, did you know that?” Sister Mary said. She touched Elly’s cheek. Elly scrunched her mouth into a half smile and shook her head no.
“We don’t see those around here much anymore,” Sister Mary said, taking Elly’s hand in hers and leading her toward the door. They walked down the corridor together as slowly as they could. Elly wanted to stay with Sister Mary but they’d already had a long talk about that. She thought of her swallowtail father and knew that even though Mother Superior didn’t want her at the orphanage anymore, wherever she went, she would never be alone.
Needless to say, Mother Superior was furious, several months later, when Elly’s new family un-adopted her. Elly hadn’t known that such a thing could be done. Mother Superior told Elly that no one wanted a liar for a child. Elly had done a wicked thing, she said, telling those fibs about that man. But Elly knew she wasn’t supposed to tell untruths and usually, she did not. Still, she had been sent back to live with the nuns and the only one who seemed happy was Sister Mary, who hugged Elly tight and brushed out her hair and said, “Go on, now, say your prayers and into bed. Lessons tomorrow, bright and early.”
The next day, Sister Mary showed Elly a picture of a swallowtail that she had cut out of a newspaper and slipped it into Elly’s exercise book, and Elly understood that she had come back home. The next day she ran back into the garden to dig.
In time, Elly came to learn that the island hadn’t always been an island. There was a time when the Earth’s eruptions and shifts had pushed the land under the sea, where layers of life and debris formed a mantle of limestone that one day would rise from the water. And now, here Elly was, thirty million years later, sinking her fingers into the warm dirt outside the children’s home, listening to the hum of the world, and sensing, even then, that she could not live without the feel of it.
Elly wasn’t sure how the shells had come to be in that particular place, Elly’s place, between the guava and guinep trees and the cerasee bush. She only knew that she was most content when she could scoop them up and paint them with watercolors, or crush them into a pinkish grit, or feel for them in the pocket of her tunic. She tucked the best ones into the cardboard box where she kept the coins and a pretty old hair comb that she’d plucked from the dirt.
In the dormitory at night, Elly sometimes spent hours turning a shell over and over in her hands. Later, she would read enough to understand that these shells were not so much out of place as out of time. Elly’s breasts were just beginning to bud when she finally realized that she and the shells had been meant to find one another. And this was her first understanding of her destiny.
Elly had been born to sift through the dirt, to look for her history and future by picking through fossils, rocks, and sediment. She might walk to her lessons with a clip in her hair and shoes on her feet and books in her arms, but she knew now that these were superficial things, that what she was at the core was not what other people gave her or called her or told her or denied her, that none of these had anything to do with her true place in the world.
The Bible said
for dust thou art
and now Elly saw what it really meant. She knew that she had been part of the world forever and always would be, and had nothing to fear, nothing at all. And she would do whatever it took to realize her dream. She would study the dirt and shells and rocks at the heart of the world, because that was her destiny.