Bird bush was like nothing I experienced before. Here we were, at two in the afternoon, in a hundred miles of wetlands I was certain the original birthing place for mosquitoes; bigger, noisier, and more annoying than any kind I encountered on turf. We donned a hybrid of army and Indiana Jones inspired ensemble. I was not certain why everyone boasted the camouflage look. I decided against soliciting grandfather’s wisdom on this topic as it was directly related to fashion; the only area I would do opposite of what he counseled.
My grandfather would nail the audition for lead role in any Jimmy Buffet music video without need for stylistic consultation. His wardrobe was arrested in several fashion eras past and could easily be mistaken for home by any specie of parrots. Reminiscent of the authentic Caribbean man, all twenty seven bush jackets lived on wire hangers in an order that confirmed his OCD proclivities. In the end, I silently concluded the jungle attire was our uniform because it looks cool.
Our rifles were as long as we were and purposely the most archaic among the crew. Mine, a prototype of a poor home-made invention, must have seen the two world wars. Riddled with chips and peeling façade, a different part moved to a new place with each fire. The trigger, the only stable element on the weapon, was as hard to sink as a lada clutch, my uncle said.
My uncle gathered us in a small enclave outside the adult posse. Within twenty minutes, we were thoroughly schooled in marksman 101. “You’ll hit more feathers with one eye closed,” he advised. My grandfather later joined to invigilate and simulate accurate rifle handling from his autodidactic rifle usage handbook for idiots, aka us.
Heidi and I, excited by the novelty of winning grandfather’s approval, were fast learners. Tex, Lief , and the other boys driven by an unabated dose of what my grandfather dubbed the ‘trigger happy fever’ shocked us with a display of critical thinking and spewed intelligent questions, mostly about ‘triggernometry.’ My grandfather, impressed by our quick acclimation with guns commended us. “I hope yuh ask questions like this about tings yuh suppose to know.”
By four o’ clock, birds in migration passed over us in clusters of what seemed like thousands. They spoke to one another in esoteric, nasal melodies that could be composed and played as piped music in a Bohemian restaurant, or as a soother for an unhappy baby. Their elegance and regal movement enchanted me. I remember thinking how much I would enjoy pointing a camera at their arrangement instead.
My grandfather was the metronome.
Ready! Set! Pull!
Everyone obeyed. But me.
We took breaks only when the sky was clear of wings, every forty minutes or so. Jocular adages about the secrets to a woman’s heart and how to smoke the best stogie were thrown across teams in between several igloos of beastly cold Red Stripes. The youngens, our affectionate title, were shooed away from the ‘ripe stuff’ and were only allowed to imbibe soft drinks. About fifteen bottles of Kola Champagne later, I begged my grandfather to direct me to the bathroom.
I contained my urge for the rest of the hunt. Even if my life depended on it, I would not squat in some bush infamous for hosting close encounters with alligators. “You mean crocodiles,” my grandfather corrected me. Assigning the right name to reptiles, amphibians…whatever was not my priority grandfather! The pitter putter of boots in the swamps tormented me. Are these people cave men? I thought. My fascination with the birds and three hours of caterwauling fire were welcomed distractions.
My cousins and I combed the mushy surrounds to collect the spoils of our hunt. After another three hours, stiff necks and sore backs were pushed aside. Our flashlight search confirmed almost a hundred bald-plates and dozens of white-wings failed to make it to the other side of the marsh. Once we were back on land, everyone else scrambled for the kitchen to start de-feathering our harvest. I scrambled for the loo. My granny knocked on the door four times to check if I was still awake. On the fifth knock, she barged in. “Drink dis,” she ordered. When I hesitated to sip the coconut water, granny explained the beverage is a natural purge that will prevent my bladder from later paying for my “act of pride.”
By the end of the week, we knew birds like Bubba knew shrimps. My granny seasoned the flock with a generic sauce she prepared several days before: white-cane vinegar, olive oil, soy sauce, msg, mashed garlic, cayenne pepper , and rosemary. She served deep fried bald-plates with sesame seeds for lunch and baked white- wings topped with a thick cheesy sauce with a minty reduction for dinner. Apart from my granny’s reverie for my mixing the carrot juice to the precise consistency as hers, there was no greater feeling than having my hunt for dinner.
Granny was in noticeably higher spirits when we returned from our second bird bush. She pranced around the kitchen, paying no mind to Kelly-Ann’s refusal to scour the pots. We tested her with various acts that sidestepped her authority. The happy dance continued. When she started to swing her apron like Miss Lou on Ring-Ding, we were scared. At dinner we discovered the source of granny’s woolgathering. The love of her life was visiting the community the next day.
We were the first to arrive in the town square. Although the speaker repeatedly announced on the megaphone for about two hours, that The Right Honourable Michael ‘Joshua’ Manley, was arriving at three o’clock, my granny insisted we took our positions in the front row at high noon. The sun pelted us. My three-sister georgette dress was glued by sweat to my body. Although we sat next to the fruit punch stand mounted by the area PNP councilor, granny forbade us from partaking out of fear of soiling our clothes. My uncle rescued us after over an hour of parching with boxes of cherry malt. Granny instructed us to use the straws. “Cherry malt is just not the same with a straw.” I protested.
Manley’s motorcade was preceded by dozens of ‘radio cars.’ Cheers greeted each vehicle in anticipation and immediately lulled once the PNP leader failed to emerge. And when he did, the square was an Olympic stadium where a million spectators hailed the same team at the same time. The occult-like jubilance was unreal. My eyes moved like an over-stimulated toddler, unable to capture every reaction at every juncture. My cousins and I were frozen with shock as grown men started to cry just upon a quick sighting of their leader. Women screamed like teen-aged Beatles fans when Manley so much as glanced at them. When the tall, towering figure approached the fruit-punch concession stand where we stood on chairs to secure the best view of the people’s pied piper, my granny burst into heaves. Manley hugged her, and for about two minutes, whispered something to her, as though he knew her. I later discovered he did…know her. My granny hugged her leader with all her strength, and frantically nodded in agreement with his every word while the tears raced down her cheeks like water from a punctured hose. He reached over and patted my head and I out-stretched my hand for a shake. Adoring supporters pummeled him. Once the bodyguards pried them away, I shouted, “ Michael!” He looked over and smiled and took my hand. I remember thinking how incredibly soft his hands were.
The charismatic politician climbed onto the lectern and waited an eternity for silence before he spoke into the microphone as though he had been speaking into microphones all his life. He delivered a three hour, ebullient poem, each stanza interspersed with the fist and citation of “power.” The message included the words solidarity, equity, and empowerment.
“Speak it Mikey,” exclaimed a woman in the far back of the crowd. He motioned for her to join him in the limelight. The woman, whose knowledge of everyone’s affairs earned her the name Jamintel, danced with Manley and fueled another eternity of noisy approval. As soon as I discovered his affinity for the word FUNDAMENTAL, I started to count the number of times it was mentioned in his speech. I took lengthy, mental notes and could not wait to consult my encyclopedias once his gospel, punctuated by seven FUNDAMENTALS, was over.
I am certain he shook everybody’s hand. Every single person. Several hours after he spoke, Manley continued to pile on his trademark charm on his supporters. They took it like communion. I was tired from watching him work the crowd and wondered if he headed the line when stamina was being served.
We sang with granny on our way home. ‘Everyone gone clear.’ Granny cried for hours in between stares at a picture of Haile Selassie I, handing over the rod of correction to ‘Joshua,’ when the Ethiopian Emperor visited the island in the 1970’s. One thing everyone knew, my granny loved Michael Manley and when in her company, we loved him too, nolens volens.
I do not know what my grandfather was thinking when weeks later he decided to join a bird bush entourage that included JLP leader, Edward Seaga. This unwise move confirmed what we all believed. Granny’s love for Michael Manley trumped that for my grandfather. Days passed without conversation among the two. Dinners grew awkward and silent or tense with humming. ‘Nearer my God to theeeee.’ Although she still served his dinner, granny refused to sit at the table while my grandfather ate.
Indeed, my granny was a casebook sample of Jamaicans who worship the man without knowing the plan. It mattered not what Democratic Socialism entailed. The leader of her party achieved his political clout and power differentiation in tandem with the degree to which he was ‘divinified.’ Not only was my granny a founding member and advisor emeritus of the deity of Jamaican politics society, she promulgated this theory against the background of her own spiritual constitution. Without fail, she called upon this belief as evidentiary support for Manley’s celestial right to govern.
Raquel is a writer and communication consultant living in Toronto, email@example.com