Caul and Calling

Non-fiction from Survival Kit #3, presented by the NGC Bocas Lit Fest

An excerpt from Musings, Mazes, Muses, Margins: A Memoir, by Gordon Rohlehr
Forthcoming in September 2020 from Peepal Tree Press



I Daniel Lyons-Denne, dreamer and uncertain interpreter of forgotten dreams, named after both a mighty lion-tamer, fire-walker and prophet of the crumble of empires, and my father’s father, a roisterous red rooster and madhouse administrator who loved rum and women in perhaps equal measure, was born with a caul and used as a child to see “things”: shapes, shades, forms, images, spirits that no one else seemed to see. No one paid too much attention to this tendency of mine until I started naming and identifying herbs and plants that I said were to be used for healing. My instructions were precise: specific leaves, buds and stems were to be boiled and then served in a clean, new calabash.

This new phase in my seeing posed a problem to the elders of my tribe. To obey the boy was to recognize that his spiritual authority was greater than Grandmother Julia’s or that of her sister’s, Nana Babb’s. To ignore the boy was to remain ignorant of what might possibly be useful herb-lore. My aunt Zinnia used to say: “All bush good, although we may not know what is good for.”

So what were they to do with this obeah child of caul and precocious calling? “What did they do?” I asked my mother, staunch yet scathingly sceptical Anglican, who having grown up in the friendlier Scots Presbyterian Church, had never really liked those Anglicans. She once told me that though our family had been attending St. James-the-more-or-less in Pity Village for nearly fifty years, only once had an Anglican vicar, the venerable Canon Wormwood Spears, set foot in our house! “What did they do?” I asked her again. “They must have done something, because I haven’t seen anything extraordinary for six decades.”

She was ninety-five at the time, her brain a three-pronged plug with one pin grounded in the neuter present, while the other two crackled with the positive and negative currents of the now perfected fables of the past.

“They put out your eye,” she replied. “Who are ‘they’” I asked?

“The elders, the older women in your father’s obeah family. They didn’t want any seer-man in the family. They said there were already too many mad men on parade. So they put out your eye.”

“But how did they put it out?”

“They used steam,” my mother said, adding that she didn’t think it was a good thing to interfere with a person’s gift of vision.

She didn’t think so, but she didn’t, maybe couldn’t, stop them from performing their exorcism. This humility on my mother’s part was inexplicable. My mother was a woman intelligent enough to have won a gold medal for placing fourth in the Senior Cambridge examinations for Commonwealth students; tough enough as a child to have survived the race and class prejudice of Bishops High School, whose rulers denied her a place even though she, poor and black as she was, had beaten all-comers in the Government County Scholarship examinations of 1920 or 1921. I had always known her to be powerfully articulate and strong in the expression of her opinions. Indeed, she still was, at ninety-five, when her judgements, after so many decades of weathering, had hardened into inflexibility. Yet my mother seemed to have been voiceless and powerless before this conclave, maybe coven, of divining elder women on their mission to steam the vision out of my third eye.

“What happened after they steamed out my eye?” I asked my mother.

“Well, you no longer told us your dreams,” she replied. “You used to dream and tell us your dreams, and we would know what was happening or what would happen. But after they shut your eye you no longer told us your dreams.”

My reticent, self-absorbed father, the Big H, probably didn’t know or couldn’t care less about what was going on. His most likely response to such mumbo-jumbo would have been a deep dark steups and a retreat to the sanity of the day’s crossword puzzle in the Argosy, which he would fill out while reclining in a hammock that he had slung in the middle of the living room.

Thus began my disconnection. The elders — priestesses of a spiritual lore that had survived beneath and beyond the colonial overburden of Anglicanism, Methodism and Presbyterianism — had decided that the generations after them were to travel unimpeded along the road of a sound colonial education, and that the best way to ensure this was to close off any alternative dark modes of knowing; to install, rather than open — as Legba used once to do — the barriers to ancestral consciousness; to drive first vision to such a deep, distant and desolate place that it would become virtually irretrievable. Those grey keepers of the remnants of dark lore had grown scared or apprehensive about the continuity into a new age of their own ancestral line of vision.

So out of love and dread they buried my eye and theirs deep between the roots of a cumacka tree, as they had, five years earlier, buried my navelstring between the sweet sapodilla and sour orange trees in our backyard at Adelphi, that village of lost oracles. And so I dreamed through my childhood, a white, moist mist of steam blurring my dreaming eye, erasing memory of each dream and face and name, as I awakened every morning, drifting from one sleep into another.


© Copyright 2020 Gordon Rohlehr

Courtesy Peepal Tree Press

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