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(MIKE FREIHEIT FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(MIKE FREIHEIT FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

A wintered man under tropical skies Add to ...

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The last time I saw my grandparents was 35 years ago. Today, I am repairing their tomb in rural Jamaica.

Much has changed. Grandmother’s prized garden, filled with countless species of plants and flowers – where she would kneel and pull stubborn blades of grass from the dark soil – is dead. The fidgety, chirping, yellow-chested bananaquits that used to suck the juice from the red and mauve hibiscus blooms are gone. That scruffy-trunk mango tree on the edge of grandma’s garden, from which I once fell on barbed wire that ripped my chest, is barely alive. Finally, I can forgive that withered old fruit tree.

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The L-shaped, paint-faded, three-bedroom brick house is smaller than I remembered. The bluish-green hills of Spring Garden in the Trelawny region are dotted with houses and farms, but the land around my grandparents’ house is fruitless – a sign of how long it has been since Hutch, my grandfather, died.

I hold my breath and walk slowly up the seven weather-beaten red steps onto the veranda, lingering briefly between the two old empty chairs where he and grandma spent afternoons reliving their youth until the sun set behind the mountains.

I grin – smirk, perhaps – as I recall how Gwendolyn Fluxby, the district’s gossip queen, would force her wide bottom into those narrow veranda chairs. Under the heavy load, the metal frame would screech against the tile floor. Gwendolyn would lean back, kick off her shoes, remove her purple head wrap and mop her forehead before fanning her face with a red-and-white handkerchief and complaining about the scorching heat.

Grandma would make lemonade with stout chunks of ice in the glass. After taking a few hasty, loud gulps, Gwendolyn would press her palm against her belly and burp like a deflating truck tire for many seconds. After begging pardon, she would settle down and release the latest windy hearsay into grandma’s right ear – the one that still listened to the world. Once, I heard her counselling my grandparents not to buy the condensed milk imported from Cuba because it was spiked with a potion that converted hard-working citizens into idle socialists.

I slip through the front door into the faded scent of peppermint and a flood of memories: Hutch’s lanky frame, his starched and ironed khaki pants and spotless, white, short-sleeved shirt as he sat beside his Telefunken radio listening to the BBC news.

My nine-year-old eyes shone brightly beside him on my first visit to his farm in Cockpit Country. Prime lands had been set aside for primary citizens of the British Empire, so Hutch’s land was cratered with sinkholes and strewn with boulders. But it was the place where he sowed the seeds of his character, and reaped an iron will through hard work and rivers of sweat.

Dense clusters of century-old trees, their fat, crusty trunks reaching for the sun, swallowed us. Mist from whitewater streams gushing over limestone rocks soaked my short pants. A sawtooth of greenish-blue hills rose in the distance, and creatures called in haunting voices I had never heard. I stomped my feet like a marching soldier to prevent the buzzing soprano choir of mosquitoes feeding on me until Hutch’s fire could drive them away.

Suddenly, it was quiet and I could almost hear the barking voices of British military men, “Load your musket and fire!” To which Maroon Captain Cudjoe rallied his own troops. “Destroy those Redcoats!”

Grandfather’s stories of ancient battles hung trapped in the humid air, and the peaceful hills roared like thunder. Musket balls ripped flesh apart. Projectiles whistled as they ricocheted off rocks and trees. Arrows and spears fired by Maroon warriors swished through the air, punching holes in the Redcoats’ jackets. It was after these guerrilla wars that the Empire negotiated a peace treaty, recognizing the Windward Maroons of Trelawny Town as an independent nation, but many were later deported to Nova Scotia.

A shot from my grandfather’s rifle removed a swift-flying white-crowned pigeon from the sky, cutting short my day-dream.

Now, looking out the car’s window, my eyes travel with the quiet Caribbean Sea. Its turquoise waters incline gently into the cloudless sky, forming a seamless bond. That’s when the old man splashes into my mind: the sound of his crackling laughter as he played cricket with me and his other four grandsons. The uncommon wisdom he always gave us: “Pick sense out of nonsense.”

The sky was cloudy on our final hunting trip. Age had wounded his health and a walking stick helped as a third leg. The rifle was heavy, and I carried it most of the time. I pointed to a wild boar in a thicket. He took aim, his hands trembling. He handed the rifle to me, as though tapping my shoulders with a sword to complete my knighthood. I grabbed the weapon, raised it and fired. It growled, a promise of spring to a wintered man under tropical skies.

Montego Bay Airport was crowded when I left him the last time, but my 3 p.m. flight to Toronto was on time. I whispered to grandma, “Tell Hutch I miss him already when you get home.” He died one year after that, and grandma eight months later. But today, in the laughter of his sons, daughters, grandchildren and faded black-and-white photographs I see him, alive again.

 

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