words by audra chadwick
art by harry clarke
It was early in the morning and I would soon be off to the clinic to see the nurse to get my regular shot.
My cousin would take me part of the way, piggy-back style, as it was a very long walk for a little girl.
My family was far from being rich, but I was a little girl, so I didn’t have to worry about how we were going to live, how we were going to eat, how we were going to pay the rent and our bills or simply buy the little things we needed for our modest life. It was a luxury to be so little. We had our own chickens in the backyard, so we could eat chicken for dinner, and we could collect eggs. We would chase the unlucky clucky around the yard until we sacked it by throwing an enamel basin over its head and holding it down. Then the cutlass would come out. I can see the cutlass coming down on the neck, the warm headless chicken getting up and running around the yard until it would finally fall to the ground.
That day we were on the path to see the nurse to get my injection. I knew that we would soon be coming to the cherry tree which sat in front of a large white concrete building with few windows. I did not know what the building was or who went in and out of it. I never saw anyone go inside or anyone come out. I remember asking about the mysterious building, and I think someone said it was an asylum. I was still not sure or satisfied with that answer. I preferred to create dark possibilities for it in my vivid imagination
The cherry tree was exquisite in its beauty; it had large branches that spread out over a green lawn and the cherries hung red and fat from the branches. They looked so delicious and so sweet, I always wanted to pick one or two and eat them. But I couldn’t reach the branches and even if I could I knew that the cherry would stick in my throat. As we came close to the tree, we could see the outline of a woman.
The old woman always looked at us closely as if she was the protector of the great white building which stood in contrast to her. Yet somehow, she seemed to blend into the building. It seemed as if time slowed down when we walked past her, our quick pace seemed to slow. Perhaps we were staring back at her and perhaps that took time. I was never sure, since each time we went by I would have a surreal experience.
It seemed as if time slowed down when we walked past her, our quick pace seemed to slow.
I felt nothing for this woman; nothing but the need to get away because she scared me so. Just above her knee was a huge oozing ulcer, big and round and went from her knee to the tip of her dress. It was a huge open sore, and she just sat there as if she were showing it off like a jewel. It was her mark, her symbol, and I did not know whether she was proud of it as she left it like that. I thought perhaps it needed to be aired, and so she left it open that way. I imagined insects flying and crawling through it, and I remember squeezing my eyes together so that I would not see it but I could never unsee it. No one seemed to notice that she was a living, feeling being, and neither did she. She just sat there with her head down, not seeming to care.
Her head never followed us, but when her mouth was open I noticed yellow rotten teeth that were covered by her shrivelled lips. I thought she must be a leper and an evil witch at that. I had heard too many English fairy tales about witches, and folk-tales about duppies when we sat to tell stories every evening on the porch of the house. I wanted to get away from this mythical creature that guarded the revolting cherry tree. I thought she must have planted it because she seemed to be protecting it. If only she were not there, I thought, the tree would be more beautiful. The fruit would be sweet and delicious and I could savour a perfect, sweet, red cherry in my mouth. But I could not do that as long as she was there.
I wanted to get away from this mythical creature that guarded the revolting cherry tree. I thought she must have planted it because she seemed to be protecting it. If only she were not there, I thought, the tree would be more beautiful.
“Come along,” my cousin would say dragging me by the arm, “not much further to go.” I remember my cousin said that her sore was never going to heal. She told me that she had “the sugar.” I remember our landlady that lived next door had “the sugar,” too. I often saw her pushing a huge needle into her leg. She always said that she was afraid that her leg might get chopped off if she was not careful.
We were finally at the doctor’s office and there were long lines of children accompanied by their parents or guardians. We walked up an outdoor flight of concrete steps that had no railing. As a child and parent came down the stairs, the nurse would say “next one,” and we stood in the doorway where the needle would be administered. The nurse had a fairly large needle in her hand and some liquid spurted from it. She had a lot to do and she was rough. This was a clinic for poor folk; it was a place where poor children came to get free vaccines. This place was representative of true Island medicine in those days. It was likely a British aid program to vaccinate poor Island children in the Third World. The First World patted itself on the shoulder with every prick that went into little buttocks.
A place like this would never be tolerated in what we called the First World of the “Haves.” We were part of the “Have Nots.” We were supposed to feel gratitude for this show of generosity, and I believe that we did. We were a poor Island with pockets of luxurious beauty set aside exclusively for the rich. The architecture of the British homes built into the mountains was astounding. I remembered the beautiful homes, some even had air-conditioned indoor pools. How absurd that was in such a warm place where there were beautiful white beaches and a vast deep blue Caribbean Sea. Before I had time to think, I felt the needle jab into my bottom. I felt the terrible sting. I cried as I pulled up my panties and went back down the stairs. “Next one,” yelled the nurse. Now I would have to return home with my sore bottom. It took a long time for the feeling of that sting to go away.
A place like this would never be tolerated in what we called the First World of the “Haves.” We were part of the “Have Nots.” We were supposed to feel gratitude for this show of generosity, and I believe that we did. We were a poor Island with pockets of luxurious beauty set aside exclusively for the rich.
Now I wonder about that place and think it is a wonder that I am still alive. There was a lack of sterilization and I did not know if the same needle had been reused from the child vaccinated before me. It was a horror of a place and a brutal way to administer medicine, to a small child, or to anyone. But I did not know that. Now I understand the phrases that I often heard “what they don’t know can’t hurt them,” and “they don’t know anything else.” We were like the cattle that did not know that they were being raised for slaughter while happily munching away on the grassy fields. The cattle did not eat hay and recycled dead cows made into animal feed. It is funny how grass-fed cattle is now such a popular commodity. It is too bad that we did not become as popular as the grass-fed cattle.
I was sore but determined to walk my way home. The woman was still sitting on the steps and the cherry tree was still there, but this time I no longer wanted any cherries. It all had to do with perception; it was the woman in all of her sadness that made me feel this way. Yet I still felt nothing but revulsion in my young, innocent heart. I had not shown any empathy. I hadn’t given her a nod or even a smile. She was just an invisible person and a pitiful creature. She did not become a person deserving of my compassion until I got older and imagined her in her plight. She was old, she was poor, she was sick. She had diabetes and was in need of care. I was a child and did not understand that.
She was just an invisible person and a pitiful creature. She did not become a person deserving of my compassion until I got older and imagined her in her plight. She was old, she was poor, she was sick.
We were poor too and living on the margins; we probably couldn’t help her at the time. I realized that it was not nature that ravaged her, but people and their uncaring ways. Even though I was a child, I could have offered her a smile or even a little hello, but I did not. Because all of society did not, all the life and light seemed to fade from her eyes; the cherry tree was the only thing that she could trust after all. The cherry tree was part of the universe, part of God, and she had merged herself with it just to be something if not somebody. I often look for my cherry tree, but still, I haven’t found it. I see people looking at me in my old ragged clothing and my gray, fuzzy, uncombed hair, with the same revulsion; they must have seen the ulcer that was growing with pus on the inside of me.
As I grew older, the beautiful life I had grew into a bountiful cherry tree, until one day misfortune came along and took it all away. I became poor, homeless, and uncared for just like the woman. Like her, I developed diabetes and have tried to keep my blood sugar count down. But the older I grew, the more I realized that no matter what negative things were said or thought about myself or the woman, we were both human beings, and we both had strength of character. She did not seem to care what anybody thought of her. That is what she needed to survive and in time I became proud to say that I felt the same as she did. I ceased to care about what people thought of me and so emotions like anger and jealousy fell to the wayside. The old woman held fast to her cherry tree not caring about her oozing ulcer and I held fast to an imaginary one. I held fast to a vision of beauty that I hoped would appear once again. Like the old woman at the steps, the woman I grew into decided that she would not let the thoughts and words of others tarnish her character.
But the older I grew, the more I realized that no matter what negative things were said or thought about myself or the woman, we were both human beings and we both had strength of character.
Somehow, it came to pass, and I was no longer living on the streets or in a vermin-infested shelter. I was in a nice, safe little home once again, living a meagre life. But I was happy and grateful for it. I still hold fast to that vision and continue to build greater ones, hoping to increase that meagre life. I hope the poor old woman with the ulcer, that sat on the steps in front of the cherry tree, found something better too. I hope with all my heart that she found a special place; people to care and love her. I hope that these were part of her vision and that it came true. I am not sure what happened, but there did come a day when we did pass that cherry tree, and she was not there. I never saw her again. I wish that I had the courage to look into her sad eyes, human to human, acknowledge her presence and just say, “Hello.”
The fact is that we are all a part of this human chain. We are all part of this giant universe. We are all nothing but matter, just as the trees, the grass, the sky and all that we can ever see. There is no difference. If only we had the strength to love everything and one another; the way that old woman loved her cherry tree. What a different world it would be. Money and materialism, power, and discrimination of all kinds; would cease to rule us. Instead, we could trade that all in for the importance of every life, human or otherwise. In these times of me-ness and selfishness, it is too bad that we need to be reminded of that. It is a shame that we require disasters or pandemics and massive death to happen before we discover the value of a little kindness and empathy towards one another. The woman with the ulcer likely had no idea the great lessons she taught as she sat under the cherry tree on those solitary, crumbling, concrete steps.