Monday, July 21, 2008

Mysterious Caribbean Death

Yesterday morning my husband was working in the garden and I was up in my usual spot on the hill admiring the beautiful sea while I played with the puppies. Johnny was walking quickly to the house and yelled out to me "Emergency, come!"

As I made my way down the hill through the pile of bouncing puppies I wondered which nephew had gotten into trouble now or was Papa ill again. I asked Johnny,"what emergency, who, what happened?" He said "It's Joe." Well we had an elderly neighbor named Joe, so my mind immediatley went to him. I asked "Joe William?"

Johnny said, "No, OUR Joe! Dead." I was shocked into a rare silence. Not our Joe. This must be some kind of mistake. Johnny quickly changed his clothes and said, "I'm out." No tears even came to my eyes as I sat dumbfounded at how this relatively young man could be gone from our lives so suddenly. I could not wrap my head around the fact that he wouldn't be coming around asking for a cigarette or some cold water.

Joe loved Pearl, Johnny's sister. He worshipped the ground she walked on. They had three boys together. Pearl became very ill and went to New York for treatment. The cancer took over her body and she died in New York. Joe was really never the same.

When Johnny brought me to St Lucia, Joe fell in love with me right away. He saw Pearl when he looked at me. He told me this. Our personalities were apparently very similar, although we did not resemble each other physically. I'm white, she was Indian for one thing. But Joe would lay down his life for me. Anytime he was near, he would look for an opportunity to take care of me, to gently pull a stray strand of hair from my face, to lift any load for me.

Joe certainly had his faults like all of us do. He was an alocholic as so many Caribbean men are. The rum. bwe wum...drink rum, in Patois. He was always trying to drown the sorrows of losing Pearl. Joe came from a very large family and they had a lot of hardships. There must have been about 10 children and half of them are mentally challenged, probably from fetal alcohol syndrome. Joe and his two sisters were the fortunate few who did not have this handicap. But with both parents dead early in life, Joe's life was always a struggle to help take care of the other less fortunate brothers and sisters.

When the children were very young, they lived on the land in a small shack where my house now stands. Joe's father kept a large herd of cattle that roamed the grassy valley near the river. One young sister slipped from the banks of that river near our home and drowned trying to free herself from the murkey water.

Late Saturday night and into the wee hours of Sunday morning Joe's sister looked out the window of her home and saw two young men dragging Joe into his tiny broken down little wooden house. She assumed he had passed out drunk and the guys were just getting him to his bed. Later in the morning she went to his house, behind her larger and grander home, to get the $150EC that she was to buy pigs with. She found him dead, pockets turned out of his jeans and the money gone. There was a lot of blood.

He was face down in the blood. Did he accidentally suffocate himself? Was he dead when the boys brought him home? His head and one hand were very black. Because his dilapidated home was leaning so seriously down hill, and he slept with his head in that down hill position was it possible that this forced the blood to rush to his head? Had he been rolled? We had a lot of questions. It was apparent that his sister didn't give a damn about him. Neighbors said she had been refusing him food lately. While she lived in the spotless concrete home with the other brothers, Joe had been relegated to the back yard where he built a ramshackle little one room house with no water or electricity. No toilet or shower.

When we went to pay our respects yesterday evening, Johnny pointed out the little house where Joe had lived. He wanted me to photograph it. It was pitiful. I had no idea that these were the conditions he was living in. This man who was the first person on our doorstep when we needed to move from our rent house to our new home. This man personally made certain every one of my many boxes and furniture were safely moved. This man who was also the first to show up and help us build our house. The house I am sitting in today has nails Joe hammered into place. The land my house is sitting on was given to us by Joe. Although in the government's eyes he didn't actually own it to give, his family had been squatters on it for decades.

Johnny and I really cared about Joe. We made sure his belly was always full, he had a cigarette when he craved one and even a shot of rum when he asked. At least when he was with us he was not abandoned. Little did I know his circumstances when he wasn't with us. I had never been to their home until last night. I had never met his sisters until last night. They were kind of shocked to meet me, they had never even seen me in all the three years I've lived here.

Joe is with Pearl now. Probably where he has dreamed of being for several years. He left behind three sad young sons, all in their early 20's, and my god-daughter is his grand daughter only two years old. My eyes sting and my chest feels so heavy when I think about what Joe's last night on earth may have been like. One of the young men told the police that he died in his arms. The other said he was alive when they took him home. The police arrested the two men twice yesterday and twice they were released. I don't know if we'll ever know the truth about Joe's death. The police don't really have the forensic tools available to do DNA or fingerprinting here. When I photographed his house just hours after his death, there was no yellow tape - it was just as Joe had left it.

The police really don't care. You won't hear this story on the news, not even locally. To the police, he was just another poor laborer who's life didn't matter. Joe's life did matter. Every human being's life matters. And everyone's death deserves attention. I hope the autopsy clears some of the mystery. The street boys in Pomme are gearing up for a war. If indeed this was a murder, there will be more. They want revenge and I am sure they will not stop until they get it.

This is the way of life in a poor Third World country. An eye for an eye. When the police fail to uophold the law, it is society who steps in to become judge and jury. Street law rules here.

In Caribbean tradition, I poured the first sip of my drink on the ground for Joe. Johnny and I toasted and drank the rest at Joe's favorite bar in his memory. That's the way he would have wanted it. Rest in peace my friend.

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