On my first visit to Jamaica I saw a pig’s severed head. My grandmother’s sister, Auntie, had asked me to grab two bottles of Ting from the ice-box, and when I walked into the kitchen and pulled up the lid, there it was, its blood splattered and frozen thick on the bottles beneath it, its brown tongue lolling out from between its clenched teeth, the tip making a small dip in the ice water. My cousins were in the next room, so I clamped my palm over my mouth to keep from screaming. They were all my age or younger, and they all spoke easily about the chickens they strangled for soup, about the alligators they threw stones at for sport; I’d been too afraid to do either when the opportunities had arisen, and I wanted to spare myself from the side-eye they’d thrown my way during such moments. Only two days before, I’d squealed when Rodney, also ten, wrung a chicken’s neck without warning; the jerk of his hands and the quick snap of the bone made me fall back against the coops behind me. He’d turned to me after I’d silenced myself, and his mouth and nose were twisted up, as if he’d been deciding whether he was irritated or contemptuous or just amused.
“Wah?” he’d asked. “Yuh nuh cook soup in Canada?”
“Sure we do,” I’d said, my voice a low mumble. “The chicken is just dead first.”
He hadn’t responded and he hadn’t taunted me in front of our other cousins, but soon after, they all treated me with a newfound delicacy. When the girls played Dandy Shandy with their friends, they stopped asking me to be in the middle, and when all of them climbed trees to pluck ripe mangoes, hanging loose-limbed from the branches, they didn’t try to convince me to clamber up and join them. They teased me instead, broad smiles stretching their cheeks, and yelled down, “Dis tree frighten yuh like ’ow duppy frighten yuh?” Then they’d let leaves fall from their hands onto my hair and laugh when I tried to pick them out of my plaits. But after the chicken, they didn’t goad me anymore, and they only approached me for games like tag, for games they thought Canadian girls could stomach.
I pictured their expressions as I stared into the icebox. The pig’s head seemed massive, bigger than my own body, and I forced myself to examine its proportions, tight-lipped and stone-eyed, until my mother came up behind me.
“What’s taking you so long?” she asked, but I didn’t have to answer. She leaned forward and peered in, swallowing hard as she did.
“Aw no,” she whispered. She looked at me and sighed. “Are you going to be traumatized by this?”
I didn’t quite know what she meant, but I felt like the right answer was “no,” so I shook my head; my mother was like my cousins. I hadn’t seen her butcher any animals, but back home she stepped on spiders without finching, she cussed out men who tried to reach for her in the street, and I couldn’t bear her scoffing at me for screaming about a pig’s head.
“Are you sure?” she asked, as she pushed down the lid and stepped back behind me.
I nodded my head.
“Okay.” She put her hand on my chest, then pulled me toward her so she could wrap her arms around my shoulders, and I grinned at being able to make her smile. We’d been in Hanover, in the bush, for a week on a family visit to Nana’s childhood home, and my mother had hardly flashed her teeth in sincerity for the past seven days. Whenever I’d seen any sort of happiness creep up on her, she’d been alone: at the market, by the ocean, or in the yard at night when everyone was asleep. I’d sit up in bed and watch out the window as she sat beneath the ackee tree and looked up at the sky.
We’d been standing together for a while when Nana came into the kitchen from the backyard. She stood next to us, her hands on her hips, the deep arch in her back making her breasts and belly protrude out.
“Mi ’ear Auntie call out she wahn a drink frahm di fridge. Dat dere is di freezah. Yuh nuh wahn dat.”
“Yes,” said my mother. “We know that now.”
“So why yuh still standin’ dere, suh? Yuh know wah Bredda put in dere? Kara cyaan see dat, she nuh raise up fahr it.”
“Relax, I closed the lid. Anyway, it was a pig’s head. It’s not like she saw the pig get slaughtered. She’s fine.”
“Kara’s a soft one, yuh know, she cyaan tek deze t’ings.”
I felt my mother take a deep breath in, and I suddenly became aware of all the exposed knives in the kitchen and wondered if there’d be any way I could hide them without being noticed. They’d already gotten into two fights – one on the day we landed, the other, two nights after – and Auntie had threatened to set the dogs on them if they didn’t calm down.
“Thank you for that, Verna, but I think we’re OK. This is between me and Kara.”
There was a pause. Nana stared at my mother, her jaw flexed, and I started to tear up in preparation for what was about to come. Nana looked at me.
“See? She a cry ’bout di head.”
“It’s not about the head,” said my mother. “She just cries over anything.”
“Like mi say. She a soft chile.”
The pig’s head haunted me for the rest of the trip. When we did touristy things, like try to climb up the Dunn’s River Falls, I’d imagine the head waiting for me at the top of the rocks, the blue-white water pouring out of its snout and ears. And at Auntie’s house, I was haunted by its disappearance and legacy. Nana kept me away from the kitchen and either icebox. Her normally pinched-up face was smooth with concern, which irritated me more than it comforted me.
But back at school, I told everyone about the head. During recess, I gathered all my classmates around in the playground and watched as their pink faces flushed red with vicarious thrill.
“And you killed the pig?” They gasped. “You weren’t scared?”
“You weren’t grossed out?”
“Nope,” I said, without hesitation. “It was cool.”
“Was there lots of blood?”
“Tons!” I giggled conspiratorially and leaned in so everyone around me could make the circle tighter. “I was the one who stuck it in the throat and the blood just came gushing out.”
“Eew!” they sang out, covering their faces from the image of a slashed throat spurting blood, dark and thick. They spread their hands out so they could see me through the spaces between their fingers.
“Did any of the blood get on you?”
“Yeah. That part was pretty bad.” The words came naturally, and with every sentence, I could see the images of my story unfold before me like they were pieces of a memory I’d forgotten about.
I told many stories at school.
I had another life there.
The only person who wasn’t all that excited about the pig’s head was Anna Mae, a girl one grade above us, who always had her blonde hair twisted into French braids. She’d just moved to the city from a farm somewhere in Northern Ontario, and she’d already told us about the blind or sickly kittens they drowned in the river there. For the first couple of months, she was known as the girl who killed cats, and whenever she showed up to a birthday party (the birthday boy or girl having been guilted into inviting her by his or her parents), if there was a cat in the house, all the kids would take turns holding it tightly to their chests or someone would lock it away in the basement for safety, always keeping an eye on Anna Mae and what she was doing, where she was going.
In my own neighbourhood, the kids were as skeptical of my story as Anna Mae was unenthused, staring blankly at me as she had. Most of my friends who lived near me had either just moved here from the Islands or had visited them so often it was like they lived both here and there, and so none of them found anything intriguing about my story – not even the kids who came from the cities. I wasn’t foolish enough to tell them I stuck the pig, though; if I were discovered as a fraud, it would have been better for it to happen at school with the white kids.
“So what did you do?”
We were outside the Catholic Junior School, in the playground, sucking on Jumbo-sized freezies on the jungle gym. Lucinda’s older sister was babysitting the five of us, and she was across the concrete field, talking to a girl on the other side of the white chain link fence.
“I watched,” I said.
Rochelle, who was hanging from the monkey bars, let herself drop onto the pebbles, her scuffed sneakers making a loud crunch as she fell. “Did you close your eyes?”
“No. I saw the whole thing.”
“And you weren’t scared?” said Rashida, inching closer to where I was sitting.
“It’s true! And when it was dead, I cut a piece off.”
Lucinda laughed. “Did not.”
“Did too! Norris helped me so I wouldn’t mess up.”
“You didn’t tell us about a cousin named Norris.”
“Norris works for Auntie and Brother.”
Anita crawled into the tube slide and sat, sideways and crouched, at the opening. She yawned, then put her hands behind her head. “I still don’t believe you weren’t scared,” she said. “You can’t even jump from the top of the stairs to the bottom like we do.”
“Well, I wasn’t scared of this.”
“I’m gonna ask your mom when she comes to pick you up,” she said.
“Go ahead. She’ll tell you I didn’t scream.”
Luckily for me, Anita’s mom came and picked her up from Lucinda’s house before mine did, and I no longer had to fret about the possibility of exposure. Not, at least, until Sunday, when I’d see Anita and her mother at church – they only sat two pews down from Nana and I during service.
The story of the pig’s head became bloodier and more gruesome with every telling. “Have you ever heard a pig scream?” I’d ask, and as a bunch of brown-haired heads wagged from side to side, I’d shudder. “It’s really bad. I’m telling you.” Every recess, I’d report a new detail to my adoring audience: how the pig, being so strong and fat, gave us such a hard time when we grabbed it in its pen that Norris had to bash its head in with a hammer before I cut in with the knife; how I didn’t wear any gloves, so the blood poured out warm and thick and sticky on my hands. And then after school, when I finished my homework, and when I made my way down to the 7-Eleven with Lucinda and the rest of the girls (and sometimes even the boys from our street), I’d saunter along and pick my nails and say, “Even when they skinned it, I didn’t look away. Not once.”
I quickly became one of the most popular kids in my grade. I was up there with Savannah Evans and Nicholas Lombardi. Savannah was the richest kid in school (which was really saying something); Nick, with his long eyelashes and dirty blond cherub curls, was the cutest; and I was suddenly the bravest (or the craziest). Girls in my grade brought their younger siblings to me to be frightened and amazed, and at the playground, during lunch time, boys started inviting me to play Red Ass with them, whipping me with the tennis ball as hard as they whipped each other. I did my part to maintain my position. Whenever a mouse scurried across classroom floors to a hole in the wall, I bit down on my lip and stayed still instead of jumping up on chairs and desks like other girls. If a teacher caught me in the middle of a misdeed, I didn’t deny doing anything wrong, like all of the kids around me. I puffed out my chest and claimed my misbehavior like a prize.
With the kids at home, I got bored of talking about the live pig, of describing how boldly I watched its slaughter, and I moved on to explaining how I helped Auntie prepare jerk pork out of the butchered body. Nobody felt the need to translate for me anymore. Now, whoever I hung out with mentioned fruits like skinup without asking me if I knew what it was, if I even knew the Jamaican equivalent of it (guinep), and they yelled, “Wah gwaan?” when they saw me instead of, “Oh, hey.” Even Anita stopped snickering when I busted out the patois, and she no longer smirked when I joined in singing along to the dancehall CDs that came out straight from the Island.
After a few weeks, my teachers got wind of the story of the pig’s head. I didn’t know they had found out until a Monday afternoon, when I saw my mother standing in the hallway just before final recess. All of the kids were queued up to leave – I’d made it to being third in line – and when Miss Kakos, the student teacher, opened the classroom door to let us out, I saw my mother leaning against the plastered wall, her hair in a messy ponytail, which meant she’d come from school and not from work.
I stood where I was, my mouth slightly parted, not caring that I was being bumped in the sides and knocked in the shoulders as everyone in line shuffled past me to get outside. This wasn’t the time she was meant to be here. This was my time, my world. My two lives weren’t meant to collide.
As Miss Kakos shepherded the kids to the yard, Ms. Gold put her hand on my back and beckoned for my mother to come into the classroom. It was a large room, one of the largest in the school, because we were a split-grade class, and it was divided into sections: reading section, working section, science section, cleansing section. This wasn’t one of the schools that had to enforce split-grade classes because of lack of space. Every room was big and colorful and had state-of-the-art equipment donated by parents.
Ms. Gold led us to the “corrective” section, which was really just her desk. She sat down behind it and gestured for me and my mother to sit in the two blue chairs facing her desk.
“I’m just going to get right to the point, Mrs., I’m sorry, Miss Davis,” said Ms. Gold, folding her hands together. “There has been a rumor around the school – started by Kara – that she killed a pig on your vacation to Jamaica.”
My mother didn’t say anything. She didn’t even look at me. Her eyes stayed on Ms. Gold, her face smooth with impassivity. But her breathing had changed; it got slower, more disciplined. I saw how her shoulders slowly heaved up and down and I pulled my mouth to the side in worry.
“The children have been abuzz with it. It seems to be quite the playground story.”
When my mother spoke, it was in measured tones. “You called me down here because my daughter told a lie?”
“So the story isn’t true?”
“No,” said my mother. “But even if it was, a child witnessing or helping out with butchering isn’t unusual or uncommon in Jamaica. But no, my daughter didn’t participate in either activity.”
“Miss Davis, to be frank, whether or not the story is true is irrelevant. It’s the nature of the lie that’s concerning.”
This time, my mother turned to look at me, but I lowered my head so as to not meet her stare. I went over the story in my mind, the blood, the knife, the hammer, the screams: it no longer came to me in images, it seemed like words that didn’t belong to me. It seemed like a story.
“I’m sorry. Concerning in what way?”
“From what Miss Kakos and I, and other teachers, have gathered, Kara has exhibited pleasure and enthusiasm toward the concept of slaughtering an animal.”
“From what I have gathered, Ms. Gold, children like to step on worms, rip the legs off daddy longlegs, squish bees. Children are intrigued by the idea of death.”
I recognized the terseness behind my mother’s words: the indignation at being questioned and the anger at having been embarrassed. My mother was a master of seeming disinterested, but her tone always betrayed her true emotions.
“I understand that this is a delicate topic and I am not hurrying to any conclusions,” said Ms. Gold. “However, perhaps it would be good for Kara to see the school’s child psychologist—”
“Ms. Gold, I’m a daycare teacher, did you know that?”
“Um, yes, Miss Davis, I believe I did.”
“OK, well, did you know that I’m familiar with educational protocol? And I believe the protocol for a situation like this would be to give the parents the option of taking their child to a family doctor who could offer a referral, before suggesting that the child be taken to the school psychologist. And even that should only happen if the concern is so great that the principal and social worker are involved. I see we’re meeting with you and not in the principal’s office, so I take it that that isn’t the case.”
I chanced a glance at Ms. Gold. She looked as surprised as I had felt when I saw my mother in the hallway. She shook her head as if she meant to shake the shock off of her face. “No, I don’t believe it’s that serious,” she said. “I just thought you should know.”
“Well, thank you for your concern and rest assured, it will be dealt with. If you don’t mind,” said my mother, getting up. I got up with her. “I would like to take Kara home now.”
“Of course,” said Ms. Gold, pushing out her chair as she stood up to shake my mother’s hand. “Have a good rest of the day. See you tomorrow, Kara.” She looked at me and smiled.
“Goodbye,” I whispered.
My mother headed toward the door, her green-and-white tennis shoes squeaky against the freshly buffered foors. I jogged to keep up with her, almost tripping over my own feet, as her legs moved swiftly and easily down the hallway and down two fights of stairs to the main entrance of the school, which opened up to Oakland Avenue and not to the playground.
We were in the car when she turned to me, her finger pointed in my face, her nail so close to my eye that when I blinked I could feel it on my eyelash.
“Do. You. Have. ANY idea. Of what you’ve done?”
“I’m speaking!” She snapped her fngers and I flinched.
“These people already look at me like I’m trash. Do you know how many parents have asked me if I was a nanny, if I could take care of their kids for some extra cash?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but my mother just shook her head and turned away from me, sighing and resting against the seat. “I do not need you making things worse by making up stories. Killing a pig. Why would you say that?”
I stayed silent, hunched in my seat; my eyes wandering, looking from side to side, as if scouting out an exit strategy, when I knew I would never just open the door and walk out.
My mother banged her palm against the steering wheel. “I asked you a question!”
“I – I.” I licked my lips. “I don’t know … why. I’m sorry, Mom.”
“You’re lying. If you were sorry, you’d stop doing it. It’s not like this is the first time! Last month one of your friends came up to me and asked if you’d really gone to China the week you were home sick. Before that, someone else asked me if you really spoke thirteen languages. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, Kara! Who else did you tell about the pig? Anyone from our neighbourhood?”
I squeezed my right two fingers with my left hand. “Just that I saw it get killed.”
“But… nobody cares there and you said that in Jamaica—”
“That isn’t the point!” She took out her ponytail and fluffed out her hair. I could see the tight kinks poke out from above her ear. She hadn’t gone to the hairdresser in a while. She hadn’t had the time. An overwhelming sense of panic and shame shook my entire body. I couldn’t help but think about what would happen if she called Anita’s mom and told her I’d lied about the pig.
But I never went back on a story.
Even the few times I was caught in a lie – usually at school – I’d maintain its truthfulness until I had another story to replace it. I never went back on a story, I just worked harder at convincing them of my next story.