Just after hurricane season ended, I locked up my dream house and went out, early morning, onto the muddy roads of Gabinda. I walked to the One Dollar Taxi Company stand to wait amongst a group of people for what had, in recent days, become a Two Dollar Taxi.
The Company’s sign was posted against an old wooden beam of the taxi stand shelter which we taxi riders had huddled under for years to avoid the pouring rain or the intense heat from the Gabindan sun. The sign read: Attention, Riders! Fare Increase. The fare at the Gabinda One Dollar Taxi Company is now Two Dollars. Thank you for choosing One Dollar Taxi. We will continue to enjoy serving the lot of you at Two Dollars per ride for more donkey years to come. Enjoy your day with the Lord! Signed, The Gabinda One Dollar Taxi Company and The Small Island Taximen Alliance.
Ever since the notice, several taxi riders threatened and even beat many of the Gabinda Taximen who insisted that riders abused and robbed them almost daily and that they therefore needed more money to feed their families. The story was in every newspaper from the local Gabindan Times to the tabloid paper, The Small Island Rag. Still, we protested and chastised the Taximen and harassed them for their sudden audacity. This upheaval lasted for several days until one steamy morning, after what we hoped was the final hurricane of the season, all of the Gabinda Taximen disappeared.
Groups of angry men – organized by yours truly – most who worked in town as bank tellers and merchants, searched for the taxi drivers everywhere going so far as to locate their mud dung shacks, tenements and cheap, wooden houses. We terrorized their families threatening them with bamboo spears and metal cutlasses until we discovered that they were just as mystified by the Taximen’s disappearance as everyone else.
“Pray.” The families said. “All we can do is pray.”
We found the Taximen’s abandoned taxis and vans and bashed them in with cricket bats and when we grew tired of this, we set fire to the taxicabs and ran away. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so angry. I certainly could afford the fare increase. But, at the time, it didn’t matter to me, as I finally had a worthwhile reason to channel my rage.
You see, the disappearance of The Gabinda Taximen caused many people to suffer. Professionals – such as myself – often wearing suits, mind you, had to get up long before dawn, like everyone else, to walk the infinite, dusty roads into town just to get to work on time. And more importantly, this inconvenience forced us – many of us transplants to the area from northern Gabinda, home of hotels, universities and plantation museums featured in tourist brochures – to walk the Southern Gabindan Roads alongside backward, country people.
In the darkness of that early morning hour, with dreams of a better life still playing about our heads, we formed a pitiful parade. Solemn women, on the way to market, carried baskets of rubbish and what-all on their heads and wailing babies on their backs. Elderly women dragged huge sacks of fruit, sorrel, ginger beer and candy to sell in the town square. Aunties dragged goats and pig carcasses behind them to roast and stew over fire pits then sell with peas and rice.
The more enterprising Gabindans set up roadside and sold bun with cheese, currant rolls, codfish cakes, green banana porridge and cocoa tea before resuming their long walk into town. Lines of church people dressed in white, burgundy and royal blue garments marched down the road. They clutched bibles, sang hymns and caught the holy spirit, breaking into sudden acts of acrobatic movement and dance. Tired looking prostitutes sat and waited along the side of the road for the sun to rise.
Huge floats transported an unfinished effigy of a black Bacchus and a colored Comus. Peacock women and John Crow men emerged onto the road from liaisons in the bush. Steel drum bands carried their drums. They occasionally stopped in the middle of the road to regale us with an inspired calypso, making the elderly women drop their goat carcasses and fruit sacks to shake up their backsides and dance with young men covered in white chalk. Always a damned primitive parade, I thought. Minstrels, even on the way to work.
Madmen, drinking rum, chased chickens down the road until they caught the fowl and cut off their heads, spilling blood. Young men on their way to the post office wore motley hats, devil tails and juggled coconuts. They stood and balanced on top of large clothing barrels addressed to family members living in other small island states. These barrels propelled the young men forward into town despite the alternate direction of the wind. The odors on that long, chaotic walk, were bittersweet and foul. They overwhelmed me.
Giant fisherman, taller than coconut trees, some of them made even taller by wearing stilts like Moko Jumbies, walked among us carrying rowboats, canoes, even the single taxi that we spared. Huge wooden crosses hung from copper wire around the giant’s thick necks. I had heard about the Gabinda Giants, but I had never seen them. One group of muscular, shirtless giants carried what looked like an enormous slave ship above their heads. I asked the giant who walked the closest to me about this slave ship. I wasn’t surprised that he could hear me as I knew that the Gabinda Giants, due to their size, had developed an impeccable range of hearing.
“Say, what are you all doing up there carrying such a heavy ship?” I asked. What could be worth it? Why don’t you just leave the damned thing in the sea?”
“We are donating this ship to The Ancestor Museum. It’s for an exhibit, Sir.”
“Donating? Don’t you deserve to be paid for your labor? You are also carrying the weight of all that history, mind you…”
“Everything we do, sir. We do for God.” I thought the giant’s tone to be dismissive and self-righteous.
“I see. Fascinating. So, tell me, then,” I continued. “Have you any idea what happened to those contemptible Taximen? You lot read the papers, don’t you? I can’t take walking these roads any longer with all of these bizarre, fooly, country people. It is one thing to be born on a small island but it is another to act like it. These people, our people have turned the Taximen’s transgression into a celebration. They act like they are not paupers or workers but carefree revelers who sing, dance, jump up and block the road like it’s J’ouvert morning. They slow down sensible people who are trying to get to work on time. Chuh! Have you seen the Taximen around at all?”
“The Taximen are up here on this ship, sir, in various states of decomposition.” The giant announced. I looked up at the massive ship that the Gabinda Giants held over their heads. A cloud of flies hovered above the vessel.
“What? They’re up there on that slave ship? What the devil are they doing up there? They should be down here driving us to and fro for one dollar as we require them to do.” But the Giant, so focused on his endeavor, stopped addressing me.
“You there! Tell them to come down and do their job this instant. Tell them they left so many people stranded because of their arrogance and greed. I don’t want to walk to work, anymore. I want to be driven!”
One young lady with the serene, compliant face of a hand carved, Black Madonna turned toward me with an unspoken plea in her eyes, then looked away. She wore a sheer black dress and carried a dead man in her arms. The unfortunate soul was wrapped in a white sheet. Not one of us, including those used to taking a taxi, bothered to assist her. I ran up to her.
“Oh no! Miss. Tell me. Who died?” I asked. Her dress rustled in the hot wind.
“My father, Sir.”
“Miss, I am so sorry for your loss. Such a heavy burden. But you look like you are handling an unfortunate situation better than most. Off to the coroners, are you? By the way, have you seen those sodded Gabinda Taximen around anywhere? I can’t keep walking to work like this. And look at you! With all you carry, you can’t even get a taxi.”
For awhile, she said nothing and just looked straight ahead down the long road that in the foul, early morning tropical darkness seemed an eternal corridor.
“This is one of the Gabinda Taximen. He was the president of the Small Island Taximen Alliance. Here. Look. My father.”
She lowered the blanket covering her father’s head and we both looked down at her father’s face that had not quite settled into its death mask. She closed the eyelid over the lifeless eye that had come open. I recognized him immediately and stopped walking to catch my breath and clear the tightness in my throat. Her father had carried me into town for so many years and we enjoyed many pleasant conversations about politics, football and family. I couldn’t believe it. A good man.
“Miss! But what happened to him? What happened to the rest of his fellow Taximen? Your father always greeted me so warmly. He was very proud of you.”
I dug into my back pocket and brought out my wallet. I pulled out two dollars to give to the young lady. But she had already hurried away. I managed to catch glimpses of her as she deftly moved about the crowd carrying her dead father into town.
“Miss!” I called out, but I lost sight of her. I didn’t make it into work that day.
The next morning, roused by singing crickets, I woke up in complete darkness and disorder. I ripped off my eye mask and threw it across the room as though it were attacking me. It was still dark, so I turned on my lamp. All night, I dreamt of the Taximen decomposing on the slave ship in the middle of Carnival. And the young lady who, alone, without a taxi, had to carry her father. I thought of lighting a candle in memory of the good man, but because I had to leave shortly to begin the long walk to work, I decided against it.
I bathed, put on my suit then brewed a pot of Small Island Brand Gourmet Coffee. I mashed green bananas and mixed with coconut milk, condensed milk and hot water. I added vanilla essence, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. I drank all the coffee but could only eat a spoonful of the porridge.
After I washed the wares, I locked and bolted my dream house door, strangely eager to join the small island alliance as together we all navigated the long, dark country road into town.
I could hardly believe that I saw the young lady in the sheer black dress again and that she still carried her dead father in her arms. I caught up with her down the road.
“Miss! Miss! I thought you brought your father in to the coroner, yesterday?”
“It’s not so easy to let him go, sir. But I will bring him in today. Or maybe tomorrow. I just wanted to carry him around his beloved Gabinda one more time, past the schoolhouse, the barbershop, the football fields, Big Church, the Ancestor Museum, the Outside Cinema, the One Dollar Taxi stand and the sea. Of course, the sea.”
“May I carry him for you?” I asked. Oh, how she looked at me.
Without a word, she placed her father in my arms, and I carried him. And though I sensed her presence I did not look back. I was so surprised at how light a dead Taximan could feel in my arms, as though he were truly unburdened. I pulled the sheet off his head and closed his other eye which had come open, then replaced the sheet. Once again, I didn’t make it into work that day or the next day and probably won’t go tomorrow.