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This poem is taken from PN Review 267, Volume 49 Number 1, September - October 2022.

Guaracara Fawzia Muradali Kane
Just before the polio epidemic closed the islands down in 1971 and ’72, my uncle gave me a morocoy. At least it was alive. The last time he went hunting in the rainforest, he came back with a squirrel’s tail, and he couldn’t understand why I was so upset. But look how fluffy, he said. It wasn’t. It was threadbare. Pictures of squirrels in Foreign show them bushy and red. Trini squirrels maaga for so, despite their greediness. Years later, I learnt that hunters were paid a bounty per squirrel, as they loved to chew through the hard skin of coffee and cocoa pods for the sweet beans inside.

Guaracara river was a black thing, iridescent, slow moving, sticky with waste from the refinery as it poured its pollution into the Gulf of Paria. The banks were slick with oil. The trees were stick-thin, stained outlines of a cartoon hell. Nothing could grow there.

There used to be a railway line, snaking behind these back streets of Marabella. It ran a few hundred yards to the north of our house, past the empty plots stretching under the huge spread of the ancient samaan tree behind us, and over a Bailey bridge spanning the river. I remember the freight trains, trundling past with wagons heavy with fresh-cut cane stalks. A sickly molasses scent wafted well after they passed. My brother warned us off going too close. He said once a boy tried to grab a cane stalk while the train was moving, and had his arm pulled off.

Ramnanan, Ramsamooj, Pariag, Sooknanan, Thackorie: streets to play in, to fetch your brother’s cricket balls when he hit a six, or ride chopper bikes bumping over potholes in the narrow roads. My friend’s father built a dollyhouse under their house. Her older sisters were so elegant, wearing makeup while cooking and cleaning in their mini skirts and shindig shoes.

After its life as a sugar distribution centre ended, Marabella town became a satellite of Texaco refinery, where workers settled with their families. Shops and workers’ eating places stretched along its main road. But when the wind blew down this way, towards the residential districts, the air would stink of sulphur and choked us when we breathed, scratched the back of our throats while we played in the streets. The corrosive rain rotted the galvanise roofs to holes and powdery rust.

There was a man who owned land at the street dead-end, near the railway bank. He had set out an orchard years before – mangoes, pomerac, sour cherries. Guavas, downs and pawpaw grew semi-wild along the edges, bird-shit sown. On the Sunday after he sold the land, he poured boiling water over the tree trunks and roots, so no one else could pick the fruit.

At seven o’clock, noon, and four o’clock, the whistle went off in the refinery to signal the start and end of the working day. If we heard it while walking to school, we knew we were late. It was a remnant of the war days, an air-raid siren for the refinery, which provided fuel for the motherland of Empire.

Every morning the man across the road, who prided himself on being a very knowledgeable and religious man, would line up his six sons in their house, according to their age, and flog them. The smallest first. He would leave the oldest two for last. They were the tallest boys in these parts, known for being strong as bullocks but not worth schooling. If my uncle visited us during these times, he would peer through our window and shout daily blessing bwai! and the man would stop. Two years later the religious man emigrated with his family to Foreign. The youngest boy married a delicate young woman, and kept her captive for months. Her uncle somehow managed to retrieve her, and brought her back home.

The train system was broken up and buses took over the roads. The rails and wood sleepers remained. We played in the gaps between overgrown razor grass. My oldest sister would carry me for walks, cradled on her shoulder, pretending she was grown up. Once she tripped on a stone. I was thrown over the rails, landed on my face on the gravel bank. I didn’t cry. My mother told me how she slapped my sister after seeing my bloodied face. I don’t remember this, but my nose is crooked.

Once a centipede stung a boy. His leg swelled like a purple boot. Santipee nearly kill ‘im! His family went to live in Canada. He died driving on the icy roads there, many decades later.

Over the years, squatters settled over the rusting rails, along the unclaimed state land. They built dwellings from discarded timber, cardboard and recycled plywood – materials easy to dismantle and reassemble quickly, should the government bulldozers turn up unannounced. In time, the area became known as the Line.

My sister would complain that I never cried. Her friends’ toddler siblings liked to bawl. Why wasn’t I like them, chubby and noisy? She solved this by locking me in the wardrobe. When I was put in, the dark was so thick you could touch it. She would always relent, open the door, scoop me up with a guilty hug, but sometimes I fainted before. I knew the strange sleep was coming when the whine of the mosquitoes crescendoed to sirens. I remember my sister being beaten by my mother with a length of orange peel, but I cannot say if this was the reason.

We would hear the adults whispering about polio in the news. While playing with the other children near the Line, someone said a whole family in the countryside got sick after eating one of the pigs on their farm. Another said it started in Mayaro near the sea, and was travelling to the towns. Travelling. Our word for taking taxis. Flag them down with a pointing finger. Climb onto the seat, join the other passengers. The disease became a live thing. It expanded and billowed dark like the refinery flambeaux, moved with a will of its own.  

Pappy came home with a truckload of scrap iron and chains. A couple of his refinery welder friends were sitting on the tray. By sunset the swing was finished. My sister and I drive past the old house sometimes. The swing is still there, standing in the immaculate garden of the house’s new owners.

The time came when we couldn’t walk into each other’s houses or play in the street. That epidemic year the Common Entrance exam was delayed. The newspapers began to publish mock exam questions, while the School Teachers Association tried to give lessons over the radio. Pappy went to school to collect my homework. I could tell he was enjoying this more than me. An assignment was to guess the number of grass leaves on our lawn. He went into his shed and came back with a ball of string, a mallet and wooden pegs. My heart sank. He pegged out the small front garden, tying the string into foot-wide grids. Mister Morocoy kept me company, eating the scuffed patches of lawn under the swing, while I counted. Pappy handed in the pages of methodology, calculations and conclusion. Mrs. Murchie called me on the phone. She laughed, you were supposed to guess, that’s all.

I remember when the river caught fire. The water was already thickened with oil-sludge. Someone lit their rubbish and the wind threw sparks onto the water’s surface. We stood in our street a half-mile away, and watched the bonfire’s flames grow taller than the houses. It burnt through the night, despite the drizzle. The glow moved slowly, followed the river’s slackened flow to the sea, catching the crude covered trees along the banks, to bring death to the already dead.

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