Calabash kyaa dun

This summer I stayed at a friend’s place in Mt. Salem (St. James) while I was coordinating the reading & art programme in Granville.

In the front yard of the house is a lovely calabash tree.  I had never seen one like it before and was pleasantly surprised by it.   It was short, not even 6 feet, a young tree, growing in a pattern similar to an almond tree.   The ones I’ve known were old trees, large, mighty, and rather imposing, almost as if they had existed before humans.   In fact, in my mind, Calabash, like cottonwood trees, never came small, or reproduced themselves.  They simply existed.

This tree was quite pleasing to look at, with the fruit hanging from the branches like jewels.  It made my morning as I headed out every day around 7:30 to get to Granville by 8:30.  Sometimes I would touch one of the fruit, and let it rest in my palm for a moment.  For me, a spiritual connection with something natural, timeless, in this rather noisy, busy, garbage and potholed strewn place called Mt. Salem.

One morning as myself and a friend who was visiting were heading out, there was a man standing at the gate.  He called to us and asked us if he could pick some calabash for us.  We knew what he really meant – he wanted to pick some calabash for himself.  I answered and told him that I didn’t want any, besides, they were young I thought.  In other words, he couldn’t have any.  Jamaicans don’t like to speak directly; two can play at that game, I thought.

He then changes tack – “the lady [owner] said I could take some”.

I replied and said I’d have to verify that; at that moment, Ms. G comes out to the verandah and overhears the conversation.  She says yes, it’s ok if he takes a few.  I say to her, perhaps you might want to define a “few” for him?  All of us standing there know this script by heart.

She says, well, there aren’t many fit ones on there, since he just picked some a few weeks ago, so he could have about a dozen or so.  I translate for him: yes, you can come in, pick the fit ones, which there aren’t many; she says a dozen.

As my friend and I stood outside waiting for a taxi – we ended up waiting for about 30 mins – we watched him fill up one bag.  But as he was reaching for some rather small fruit, I asked him, a bit on the sarcastic side, if he knew how much was a dozen, pointedly staring at the bulging scandal bag that he had been putting them in.

Him look pon it an tell mi seh him nuh tink ‘im reach dozen yet!  Serves me right, in a way.

[Now, this is a well-honed practice among Jamaicans who want to get away with something wrong: they will say the exact opposite of what is visible and clear to onlookers, and will do so with such incredible conviction, that you become incredibly discombobulated by their response.  When your attention shifts to trying to figure out why they would lie in such a barefaced way, you are distracted from the problem, and eventually forget about it.  Bingo! They’ve won.]

My friend kissed her teeth in disgust and turned away.

I realized that subtlety was no longer appropriate and stopped being nice immediately.  I told him in the kind of stern voice I would use for a misbehaving child – he was acting like one! – that he had picked enough, and that he should take his hands off the tree at once and move along.

That’s when I noticed that he had been filling TWO bags at a time: one was at his feet, which I couldn’t see from where I was standing on the other side of the wall. And as I walked up closer, I realize that, prior to him asking earlier, he had ALREADY filled another bag from the branches hanging over the wall, and tucked it behind the bush.  S a  chree bag him have now, an’ it look like seh ‘im n’aa guh stop until him pick off every last calabash offa di tree.

My friend, who’s also an environmental activist, started to engage him about the logic of picking off every last fruit and not thinking ahead and considering that he would need some in the future, and that perhaps he ought to leave some to mature. Besides, she said matter-of-factly, it was not his tree and he needed to leave some for the owner.

Hear him nuh, with eyes and hands still trying to pick off a last one, as if we wouldn’t notice, him seh him nuh need fi leave none because we not using it anyway, and he will find a next tree for next time.

At that point, I jus’ lost it.  I told him that he ought to go find that next tree, since ah was gw’aa set sitt’n pan ‘im an mek him tun wutless ef him eva come back an’ try pick another calabash.  (He doesn’t need to know that I don’t actually live there).   If yuh si how fast him pick up di bag dem an’ move out.

We had to laugh about it when we finally got a taxi, just to keep from crying or feeling utterly defeated so early in the day.  After all, we were in the middle of working with children who, unfortunately, had already been honing their skills based on what they learned from characters like the one we met that morning. Hope and possibility, along with some hard work, was on our side.  We had to hold onto that, if only to be able to reap the promise that a fit calabash offers.


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