Thick, heavy heat weighed on the afternoon, the Blue Mountain breeze powerless to shift it. Red Poinciana leaves blazed against deep blue sky, like a flock of tiny vibrant birds taking flight. Mangoes swayed gently until a soft rustling thud told of one breaking free, landing on the grass below. A small, pale hand reached out from the shade and into the glare of the Jamaican sun just long enough to scoop it up, snatching it back like treasure.
Molly hid her Scottish complexion under the leaves of the neighbouring breadfruit tree, doing her best to escape the relentless heat and the thunderous mood of her father. Hopping back onto the branch of her reading nook she bit into the fruit. Succulent orange juice filled her mouth, running down her chin and along her forearm. She lifted her skirt to wipe her hand without thinking of the stain it would leave. Another scolding for the mess would be waiting at the end of the day. Her sticky hand reached down from her seat. At the base of the trunk by the roots was a little gap just big enough for three books, four if they were slim volumes, perfect for days like this when she preferred to stay away for a while. Curling herself up and out of the way she let the story take her to distant lands and adventures. Often she dreamed of Scotland, as though it were a mythical place, her mind dancing with tales her mother had told her each time she tucked her into bed. She had cousins there, and grandparents. Sometimes, glancing at her mother in an unguarded moment, there was a faraway look in her eyes and Molly knew she was missing her homeland. “One day we’ll go back, my love, and you’ll see for yourself,” she would whisper wistfully. Molly thought her mother seemed lonely. They were far from company here, tucked among the hills with only a distant view of life and activity far below. Glad of her books, the warmth of the day wrapped around Molly like a shawl and the lilting lullaby of leaves took her away.
She woke with a start. Sitting upright her ears identified a great commotion nearby. Recognising the voice of her father roaring with disapproval she turned to peer through the leaves. He was striding with great purpose, face red, arms gesticulating wildly. In one hand he carried his whip. Molly flinched. What did Papa mean to do with the whip? One quiet hop landed her on the ground and she peered around the tree truck, her eyes following her father’s direction of travel. A young man knelt with his hands held up in defence, his head bowed towards the dirt. Molly could not make out what her father said as he leant over the kneeling man, but a moment later there was a whistling sound and a mighty crack as the whip fell across his shoulders and the man cried out in pain. Molly’s face contorted in horror. Again and again came the awful noise until she could stand it no more, and sinking to the ground she covered her ears with her hands, and buried her face in the mango-stained skirt murmuring all the while, ‘no Papa, no.’
She stayed in that position until everything had been quiet for some time. Slowly, turning on to her knees, she peered around from behind the tree. Her father was no longer there and the man he had beaten was lying face down on the ground, unmoving. Two others came and, lifting him gently by the arms, carried him away. His feet left a trail as he was dragged along and Molly thought it looked like a very long snake. Could the man be dead? She examined the sombre faces of those nearby and felt an ache in the pit of her stomach. When everyone had gone she got to her feet and walked across to where he had lain. The dry and sandy earth was wet with blood. She could almost make out the shape of him on the ground, could see where he had placed his head. Following the outline of his body, the part she could see most clearly was a handprint, right by her feet where she stood. Carefully, trying not to disturb the man’s dusty reflection, she sat beside him, placing her small hand into the ghost of his. Softly she began to hum the lullaby Mama sang to her before she went to sleep, as her tears fell to stain the ground, sentinels of silent protest.
As the song finished she had the feeling of being watched. Glancing towards the shadows of the tree line directly ahead of her, she was aware of a slight movement in the darkness. She sat waiting, never taking her eyes from that spot, until eventually the watcher appeared. A boy of about her age stepped out into the glare of the sunlight and stopped. Staring across at Molly he held her gaze with sorrowful eyes as he slowly walked towards her, until he was standing on the other side of the invisible body. His expression held an intense curiosity, a question on his lips unable to be spoken. Molly could make out the faint trace of tears on his dark cheek. She had never seen one of them cry before. Out of the silence a woman’s voice called from afar and he glanced suddenly, looking around as if anticipating danger, before running off in the direction of the snake trail. She watched him go until he disappeared among the trees.
The sun began to cast long shadows and Molly’s stomach growled telling her it was almost time for supper. She did not wish to be in trouble today. Lifting her hand from the dirt she kissed it, and patted the place where the man’s head had been. Rising to her feet she dusted herself down, noting the yellow and brown marks of dirt forming a dull rainbow of stains alongside the orange from earlier. Turning her back on the scene she walked towards the Great House.
Later, as she lay in bed, Molly listened to the sounds floating in through her open window. Jamaica was never really silent, especially not high up towards the mountains. There was always the faintest of breezes rustling the palm trees and sugar cane, and at night the place was alive with insects and creatures singing and calling to one another. The cicadas were especially loud tonight. Molly envied them. They clearly had a lot of each other to speak to and plenty to say. She was on her own, miles from anyone who might be a friend.
Wide awake and with the house in silence, she threw back the bed clothes and tiptoed over to the chair where her shawl was resting. Wrapping it round her shoulders she made her way carefully to the door, avoiding the squeaking floorboard, before gingerly turning the door handle. The darkness was cut by a wide shaft of moonlight coming through the window at the end of the hall, perfectly illuminating her path down the stairs. Molly took it as an invitation.
Once on the porch she paused to feel the cool tiles under her feet and allow the gentle wind to caress her cheek. Then making her way down the grand stone staircase to the garden, she fully embraced the freedom of the night, running down the grassy lawn away from the house. At the bottom of the slope she tore down the steps leading to the wide open clearing before stopping suddenly, seeing a figure in the darkness in front of her. Were it not for the light of the moon she would have run straight into him, but as it was she could just make out the shape of a small person on the ground ahead of where she was standing. And then she heard the sound of gentle sobbing. For a moment she thought of turning around and going back, but something drove her forward. As she approached she realised it was the same spot from earlier, and she could see that this person was stroking the ground where the man had been. Leaning forward she placed a hand on the shoulder, which immediately flinched and stood up. It was the boy. Now that he stood directly opposite her she could see that he seemed a little older than she first thought.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Blinking back tears, the boy looked from Molly and back to the ground beside him.
“Who was he?”
The boy didn’t raise his eyes, but stared intently at the dust as though seeing the person still lying there.
“Bredda,” came the reply.
A nod came in response. Molly didn’t want to ask the next question, but she needed to know.
“Is he… alive?”
Silently the boy shook his head before collapsing to his knees once more and laying his cheek on the dirt. Unsure of what to say or do, Molly knelt beside him and together they kept vigil over the shadow until the first signs of light crept into the sky.
“I had better go. The house will be stirring soon.”
“Yes miss,” agreed the boy getting to his feet.
Shaking her head she rose to face him, she offered her hand to be shaken.
The boy took a step back as he looked at her hand and then back at her face in horror. With an urgency in his voice he replied, “No miss, no!”
“There’s no need to fear,” Molly reassured him, “it can be our secret.” Looking at her feet and with a slight shrug of her shoulders she added, “I need a friend.”
Clouds of doubt gathered in his mind as he searched her face, weighing all that he knew against the words being spoken.
“Please?” she entreated, her voice filled with loneliness and longing.
Tentatively the boy slid his hand into hers and held on.
“Jacob,” he said gently.
“Pleased to meet you Jacob.”
He nodded before letting go of her hand. Without a word they turned their backs on each other and made their way into the dawn.