The girls had been eating guavas for weeks. Guava jams, juices, stews, tarts with latticed pastry, every day the kitchen was misty with the perfume of guava. It was the largest crop in years, the branches obscenely laden, bending under the fruit. Nana always believed the dead came out at night to eat guavas. Guayabas, she’d called them. She said her own grandmother, an Amerindian from the mainland, had told her the stories about Maquetaurie Guayaba, the guava king and his roving band of souls. Over the last week Rachel has looked for him every night, this handsome king of the Taino underworld, but, instead, she imagines she sees her grandmother, comfortable in the thick branches of the tree, its bark smooth and grey in some areas, mottled and peeling in others.
In the morning the tree greeted her even though she was not alone in the house. Maya and Natalie lay asleep upstairs in their beds, faces turned to the cracks in the curtains, pink eyelids filtering the first morning rays to their dreams. She wondered what they dreamed of. In the kitchen the clock on the digital stove flashed red blasts, hurrying to tell her that electricity had been interrupted while they slept. She reached under the island in the center of the kitchen and unclipped her secret drawer. Until six months ago, it held precious things; little velvet boxes filled with the girls’ baby teeth and soft locks of newborn hair. The drawer whirred open and slid onto her lap. For the next hour Rachel sat looking at women’s breasts until she heard the girls stirring upstairs.
The images hidden between the red velvet cupcakes and the meringue recipes in the old Betty Crocker cookbook were luscious, some caramel-tipped, others tinged with mocha and tinctures of vanilla. Others still were loosely held in frothy lace, delicate as Pavlova. Each one feeding an appetite as voracious as any she’d known. Today, Rachel lingered on her favorite, a lucky find in an old Playboy Magazine.
John found the lump six months ago, on Carnival Sunday. They’d been looking at Dimanche Gras on television, the blue light of the television flickering in the dark. On the stage the Blue Devils shook their pitchforks and baby dolls towards the camera. While John ran his hand lazily over her flesh, she’d followed the invisible map of arousal, turning so the nipple hardened against his palm, the feeling delicious under the roar of the city calling J’ouvert. When his whole hand had engaged, probing and pressing, she’d known instantly, turning away from the screen as if the Devils and the Dame Lorraines were implicated in her tragedy. She put her hand over his, her fingers pulling his hand away so she could feel. Let me, she wanted to say, suddenly claustrophobic with panic. The lump had been small and hard but, they found out later, it ran roots deep into her chest wall. If she imagined her breast as a clock, the lump was a giant two. It was the breast with the creamy birthmark. When she was pregnant, the mark had stretched and darkened as she grew. Even after she’d had Maya, it remained a heavy question mark on her skin. She’d had the most milk on the whole maternity ward, her breasts filling and leaking to the sound of the nursery wails, the milk running in rivulets down her sides to pool in sticky patches along her body. The girl in the bed next to Rachel asked for advice, crying over her own cracked nipples and listless milk.
A week after Carnival, after all the glitter and beads were swept from the streets of the city, the breast was cut from her chest. Rachel was not awake when the surgeon reached behind her clavicle and deep under her arm. After John told her a nurse passed him on the stairs with the breast in a bucket. He’d cried when he told her this. When she asked her doctor what her breast was doing on the stairs while she lay breathing deeply under the canopy of anesthetic, he shrugged in the noncommittal way of doctors. It had been on its way to pathology. She imagined her breast waiting patiently, covered decorously in muslin like newly grown mozzarella. Imagining her flesh in a bucket, she had to rest her head on the cool tiles of the kitchen island and count ten backwards to zero to slow her racing heart. Under her shirt, the scar was puckered and knotted, wrapping its way along her ribs.
At first the images of breasts satisfied the want of missing flesh, a magical game of phantom pleasures. Her chest was still stitched shut when she cut the first breast from a National Geographic magazine. The appetite had come with the intensity of lust. The first photograph was one of African girl-breasts tapering to pointy nipples, bare under a collar of rings. She placed each new picture on her new hard chest, pinning the thin paper to the hollow bra, the mirror reflecting her but not her; bald and thin. In her dreams, she felt the weight of the breast on her ribcage. She’d always been weighted by the two matching globes of flesh that stopped her from listing to either side. Now she looked at other women in the grocery, imagining the shape and form of flesh that lived in broderie anglaise or white cotton. She pictured herself sliding behind these women and cupping healthy other flesh, stealing it away.
She hadn’t thought it would be hard for a grown woman to find pictures of breasts. But it was. It was very hard because she didn’t want the kind of breasts that men wanted. Perky silicone breasts didn’t comfort her. Olive breasts with large areoles called forth memories like silver filaments, delicate and bright. She remembered her grandmother pulling on her bra in the thick afternoon light of the bedroom in St. Joseph village. Her old-lady breasts brown in the swirling yellow light of the room, veiny and shriveled in their tenacity, set like amber across the years. Two weeks after surgery, they dripped the drugs into the veins on the back of her hands. No one told her that Adriamycin would turn the backs of her eyes red. That first evening John found the two girls standing in the doorway to the bedroom, Natalie holding Maya’s arm so hard that the little red half-moons tattooed her skin for days. The girls called her, but Rachel was deep in a red fugue, riding wave after wave of nausea that left her oddly euphoric when she emerged. As if her head were only barely attached to her body.
“I’ve been fighting all day,” she said to the girls. “But it’s not as bad as it looks. Imagine Mummy fighting dragons, it takes a lot of concentration. That’s why I didn’t hear you when you called.”
To prove her point, she Googled images of fighting dragons and showed them how fierce one needed to be to fight like a dragon. Natalie tried to roll her eyes before bursting into tears.
“God, how old do you think I am?”
How old do you think I am? Rachel wanted to throw the question back at the child. Just how old do you think I am? Okay, okay, John said, when he saw Rachel’s face. I’m sorry, she told him afterwards. I think the drug is doing something to my mind. Makes me angry at the girls, at you, at everyone.
For weeks, the dragon raged in Rachel’s fingernail plates and deep in her hair follicles, little violent wars made her hair fall in clumps and her nails go thin and translucent like the nails on movie vampires.
“Six centimetres with partial attachment to the chest wall,” said Dr. Shah, the oncologist, when she went to see him after surgery. Behind him, a computer screen lit up with the mammogram image of the lost breast, the dark shadow stippled with galaxies of pinpoints.
“Like this,” said Dr. Shah “walk your fingers up the shower stall. March your fingers until the arm is above your head.”
He showed her how to stop the lymph from gathering in her arm. From behind his desk, pictures of Dr.Shah’s wife and children beamed down from the bookshelf like celestial well-wishers. Mrs. Shah was pretty with a wide mouth and Rachel wondered what her breasts looked like. At night, she thought, Dr. Shah must reach over his sleeping wife and gently palpate them, running his fingers in line with the mammary ducts, each fingertip alert to a buckle in the flesh. Rachel imagined her sleeping soundly, breathing in and out, while her husband guarded her breasts.
“We have every reason to be hopeful,” Dr. Shah said. Six months ago.
Her treatment plan was laid out in the office, her salvation on a large white and red laminated poster. In the first box, a smiling woman sat across from her doctor. It was hard to tell if the woman had both breasts. A large red arrow directed Rachel’s eye to the next box. Now the woman lay in a hospital bed, an IV line snaking from a smiling nurse. Above the woman’s head, chemotherapy drugs floated in speech balloons, festively decorated with pink ribbons. Some were connected like amateur family trees while others floated off to the side like errant ghosts. Further along, a glamorous hairdresser stood over the shorn hair of the bald woman. Cancer by flowchart seemed pleasant, mildly soporific even. At the end of the poster, the woman waved goodbye, goodbye.
Today she is teaching the girls to make guava jelly. From the bucket next to the fridge, the smell of the fruit is sweet and rotten, the guavas stacked in an old diaper pail, the breasts hidden from sight. The girls watch as she pares the thin skin of the first fruit; Natalie, gangly and beautiful at thirteen, her breasts still tiny nubs under her tee-shirt; Maya, a rumbaba child, sweet brown and only six. Rachel tries not to notice her nails as she peels. Her old nails were smooth and pink; these new nails are horny and discolored, only halfway up her nail bed, changeling nails that belong on old lady hands.
“We’ll boil the skin separately for jelly and, look, we’re boiling the insides until they get thick and frothy,” she says, curling her hands into her palms.
On the stove, a thick pink froth bubbles over, hissing as it hits open flame, sending out the smell of scorched fruit.
“That’s where the pectin lies,” Rachel says. “It’s what makes the jelly set, like magic.”
Was this one of the things they’d remember?
“A worm,” says Natalie suddenly.
The naked innards lie in heap on the counter. She’s forgotten to tell them about the worms.
“Sweetheart, all guavas have worms.” She laughs, even though it is not funny. “A moth lays her eggs on the guava when it’s just a little thing; when it’s just a flower.”
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” Natalie sweeps the halved guavas off the counter into the sink, leaving a trail of small worms and seeds.
“Oh Natalie, come on.”
But the girl is gone, slamming the door behind her and Rachel is suddenly so tired she can barely stand.
“So what now Mummy? What do I add next?”
Maya is in front of her, spoon suspended over the sugar bowl.
“Do I pour out some sugar or do we add the lime?” The child is working hard to keep from crying. “Why do we need lime?”
This is the conversation that will carry them away from the dangerous edge of Natalie’s fury which has steamed the kitchen windows and blotted the smell of guava. She knows that Maya thinks that this will upset her, this blast of fury that has blown a hole in this carefully orchestrated morning, exactly designed by Rachel so that her daughters will remember every moment. She knows that this is what has driven Natalie out of the room. But instead of fury, Natalie’s has left in her wake a terror that is rising like steam off the boiling guavas. And this is what she is afraid will contaminate Maya.
“Baby, when you add the lime, it stops the jelly from being too sticky. And always wash your hands after handling lime; it will fry your hands in the sun.”
Was Natalie listening on the other side of the door?
“Always remember, cup for cup. One cup of guava to one cup of sugar.”
Perhaps they are too young. Is she was being irresponsible, exposing them to boiling water, sharp knives, caustic lime and rotten guavas. Be careful. Take care.
“Mama, did a moth leave an egg in you?”
Between Maya and Rachel the sugar poured like rain.
“No, my love, not a moth.”
After it is over, the bottles stand on the counter, golden and translucent. Rachel is tired, her bones pointed under her skin, pushing like eager dogs against her nerves.
“I can clean,” the child is swaying from side to side, hugging her elbows to her body.
“No, go baby. Go and play, I can manage.”
Alone in the kitchen, the bones in her back shifted and moved. Was this how it started? This sensing of your bones, imagining the cells sending out white roots with hungry tips? She places a mirror on the far wall of the kitchen. A hand painted Peruvian mirror that matches her terracotta floor and the Tibetan bowls that line her counters. On the counter are photographs of Carnivals gone, ole mas, Minshall mas, bikini and beads mas, photographs of her mother, one of her grandmother, two of the girls as babies. Had she flown in the face of some vengeful God? Has he abandoned her because now she only dreamt of Maquetaurie Guayaba? The mirror worked now for emergency pantomimes, for times such as this, when she is so overwhelmed she could scarcely breathe. Through the window Maya wheels her bike down the driveway. Maya looks back and waves.
Alone in the kitchen, Rachel pulls down the blinds and pulls out her breast; she and John have not made love in weeks. Can she blame him? Her skin emits a pulsing chemical smell. Her hair is fuzzy and patchy, a livid bruise still a blue streak across her chest. Carpe Diem says her tee-shirt. Above the Carpe, she pins the Playboy breast. The breast in the mirror is large; the tight nipple a beautiful taupe on the mocha skin that is the color of Rachel. Yesterday, she’d donned an old breast for a different fantasy. Old age. But today she is in a different mood. Today she wants to look at herself in the mirror through slitted eyes; eyes half-closed so that her reflection is soft and misty, until the person that Rachel remembers as herself stares back. The skin on John’s lower back is smooth, slick and dense as a dolphin. Once a long time ago, she’d painted a dolphin for an art competition. She’d won and had her picture published in the papers. When she’d first felt John’s skin under her fingers, she’d remembered the painting: the dolphin half in and half out the water, his porpoise body thick and solid with health. And under the water, wonderful sea creatures; angel fish and barracudas; tiny, fern like crustaceans like the ones she’d find on the Mayaro shoreline when she was a girl.
Natalie stood at the door.
Rachel can see the child looking at the breast pinned to her mother’s tee-shirt carefully gauging the expression on her face. Rachel’s face is different, the muscles under the skin altered so that the change goes beyond thinness or baldness. If Rachel had to name it when she looks in the mirror it would have to be something like shape shifting. Something deep and disturbing that goes beyond anything she has ever heard or read about cancer. She doesn’t know anyone else with cancer, so she isn’t sure if this disappearing of spirit is normal. Something told her it was not. Late one night, last week, she’d come to herself talking to a shadow at the window, her eyes riveted on the guava tree. Natalie’s come back to say sorry. Sorry for stamping out of the room, sorry for being childish when she knows her mother is trying so hard. But she knows the child wants to say the smell of guava now makes her sick. It is the smell of sickness. Rachel realizes that while she was boiling the insides of the guavas, keeping up the bright chatter that clashed with her thin back and withered hands, Natalie realized that her mother had given up. That she no longer wanted to be there with them. She was ready to die. It was this that had made Natalie, sweep the counter clean and slam the door behind her. How did someone like Rachel give up? If not just on her, but on Maya, and her father.
There is a pile of paper breasts neatly stacked and labeled on the counter. Rachel does not move as Natalie goes towards them. They are arranged in order. All the old breasts lie together. There are tapioca coloured breasts, indigo and mocha, peach and the gentle lavender of blue veins under white. In another pile, there are breasts that look like her daughter’s ones. Small, pert, tight. There are other piles. Piles with babies attached to heavy breasts, piles with voluptuous breasts held loosely in lace or being fondled by hands.
“Do you want a new breast?”
As Natalie asks the question, Rachel knows that she understands it’s not about replacing a breast. It’s her daughter’s first glimpse into adulthood and Rachel could cry for being here to see it. She no longer takes the medicine in the fridge and now she knows that Natalie knows that she hides this from her father. Perhaps Natalie knows because she finds the unused syringes in the garbage bin. Maybe this how people die? Not like they do on TV with their family gathered around them, faces serene and calm. It occurs to her with something like an electric shock that her daughter is watching her die. She cannot imagine the possibility of her death, the disappearance of the body and she fights down the urge to throw herself on her daughter. She can see Natalie is thinking hard, buckling down somewhere deep inside herself as if preparing for battle. In the early days, she’d told John that she felt as if she was losing her head. That’s normal, he’d said. You’re under a lot of stress; it’s natural to start forgetting things. No, you don’t understand, Rachel had said in her gravelly voice. I literally feel as if I’m losing my head. As if it’s going to float off my body. What could you say to a thing like that? It was okay for old people to die. The first person Rachel knew who died was an old lady in Mayaro. She’d come out onto the back stairs of the rambling old estate house to wave goodbye. Rachel was seven, walking with her mother to the beach, walking on the hard thorny nuts of the casuarinas listening to the leaves whispering up and down between the beach and the house. The next day the old lady was dead. She was buried in Lapeyrouse cemetery next to the mouldy bones of her ancestors. For a long time after, Rachel imagined that she heard the sigh of the casuarinas when she lay in bed at night thinking about the old lady lying under the earth. Is that how it would be for her?
It was not just the pinned breast, Rachel knew, it was the expression Natalie had seen on her mother’s face. Rachel had been deep in reverie, caught in her imaginary world. The file of breasts lay open on the island. The Playboy breast crumpled around the pins. The child was silent as she looked at the images. She placed them on the counter in neat stacks once she’d examined each one, her face silent and closed. What could this child know of birth, or love, or aging? How to explain these lost countries that appeared only in this strange world that imagined the audience of a handsome guava god?
Rachel was crying, tired of her uncooperative veins, of the platelets that bloomed into purple bruises. She cried for the guava god, the one she sought in the darkness of the garden, in the tangled branches of the tree. She imagined him young and handsome. Decorated perhaps with hummingbird feathers; dark haired and eternally young. So irresistible that she had begun to yearn for him and his band of guava-eating souls. Each night she told John she felt better, told him the medicine seemed to be working, lying as she looked out the window over his shoulder.
“Mum? Have you taken your medicine?” Natalie moved towards the fridge and then, suddenly, ghostlike, she was at Rachel’s side. How did she know?
“We’ll get through this. We will. I will give it to you every morning,” said her daughter.
In Natalie’s teenage hands, the ampoule tip snapped effortlessly. Natalie flicked it lightly to rid it of air bubbles, as Rachel had done so many times. To offer her arm, Rachel had to unpin her breast. Wet with tears, it peeled away in ribbons and fell onto the sugary floor.
The next day John poisoned the tree, pouring bucket after bucket of diesel onto its roots. For the next three days, the tree rained guavas and leaves; enough guavas to feed an army of souls, until they were all sick to death of the smell of guava. By Sunday it was bare and John felled it with an axe, Natalie redirecting Rachel whenever she tried to get to the window.