The Beni Tonka Story
For twenty-five years, I wandered the earth without roots. I knew little of place, much less of family. And for the most part, they knew little or nothing of me. Trinidad was all the way over there; and for a long time, I was afraid. Afraid that she wouldn’t recognize me; afraid that a native, lost son would never find home.
I used to fantasize about what it felt like to be there, what home would smell and taste like. I dreamed and lamented about all the things I’d been missing: the inside jokes, the collective memories, my grand-mother’s perfume, her tawah, the taste of her hand. What was the sound of chopping bush in the morning; humming hymns, hearing old-time, bedtime stories?
What about the folklore: Papa Bois, Lagarhoon, Douen, Soucuyants and doorways lined with salt, children walking in backwards? Were there still endless processions, week-long wakes, cocoa tea and black cake? How was it when cocoa layered the air after the harvest; and down the road, the burning molasses?
…where were the teasing voices all those years, coming from another room, my cousins, us fighting, crying, hiding from licks and bush-brooms, making up, getting back to mischief? Where was the rain on our tongues, the coconut water stained clothes on our backs?
I could imagine avoiding Auntie’s peregrine-like gaze; creeping around her, she’d sniff out our dirty hands, grasp them in contrast with the creamed-clean, polished nails, then capsize calabash over our heads. The ice-cold torrent cascading down our backs flowed into a river of smile across her face. Ah, we would’ve grown up together cousins, climbed mango and coco, sucked tonka bean, kicked jeb nests, lit fires, beat pan, played Mas, J’ouvert, paint, powder, moko jumbies, jab jab, gayelle dust, pulsating djembe lavway, poui tree blossoming on reddo’s head, we would’ve laughed and remembered.
All this I had to reclaim somehow; my voice in my father’s innuendo; my step, in an uncle’s calypso; and my rhythm, in the melody of night and day, waving with palms up and open, greeting all the good people.
Five years ago, I built up the courage to make my first trip to Trinidad and Tobago. I arrived on one of the Caribbean’s most festive days, Carnival Monday. After being freed from the tangle of customs and baggage claim, I found myself once more surrounded by people in costumes. This time they were revellers, masquerading everywhere, wearing all their colours, all their songs, all at once. Jet-lagged though, the heat and all this excitement was getting to me. So. I escaped. My eyes gathered, grew wings and took off into the new sky over the galvanized terminal roof. We flew deep into the afternoon blue which was easing itself into a slightly less blue shade of purple. Cruising now, our contrails began curling into something not unlike a calming sensation; when in that instant, three onyx battleships, soaring in wedge formation, curtailed our lofty retreat. Bewildered, I felt the spectral voice of Sir David Attenborough reverberate through my disembodied frame. “Magnificent frigate birds!” I whispered, my eyes shuttering upon re-entry. “Man o’war birds. Pirates of the skies.” Yes. The Caribbean! I had arrived. Nah! Real corny. I rattled my head, shaking the association. Then, I heard my name. Someone had called it. I scanned the crowd for a familiar face. And there it was. The most familiar of faces.
I awoke Ash Wednesday to a sudden sunrise and to the collective call, recall of tropic birds. The breeze and all its greenness applauding itself triumphantly throughout the bush, allayed on approach to a rather defeated sort of ruffle, succumbing then, with a whimper on a graze of exposed feet and cheek. An indirect light carefully let itself in. My eyes followed it around our new surroundings. Another breeze crept in via the space between the roof and my one-room annex behind the house. The interior was this perfect shade of mint pastel, reminding me of the centuries old copper domes and sculptures along the Rhine ― they, having long been exposed to the elements, undergo a series of chemical reactions giving the polished old metal, a youthful, ornate patina. My gaze found the half-weathered, wooden door. Next to it stretched a picnic bench in centenarian red ― it belonged to our late neighbour, Mrs. Palmer. Resting on top, just beyond the shade’s reach, beneath an overburdened bookshelf, was a bowl, a calabash ― to this day, I still bathe with it whenever back home. My eyes arched over to the right side of the bed ― way before hammock days and mosquito net nights ― to an area hitherto assigned to periphery. A large mortar, carved out of a single block of cedarwood, wore an aged orange. A matching pestle of the same family, leaned against it. It was smooth on the eye, the effect of having been sanded down over generations by industry and oil of human hand.
My eyes watered at the aesthetic and significance of it all. I laid there, contorted, transfixed by the palm sway, the fig leaves and the cocoa trees. A lonely giant – the mighty cedar, that I’d eventually see reincarnated as a light gap – spread its broccoli bloom across the morning new. A yellow tail found a branch to nest from; and I, in a good humour, found my feet. The door was ajar. I shouldered through it and leaned onto the banister. Before me lay an expertly peeled grapefruit half. I’d never seen one cut that way. My father must have left it for me. Smiling, I picked it up. Bit it. Big mistake. “Son, in the bush, everything is a trap!” he’d later state. My bottom lip now numb from the fuzzy, novocaine kiss of the inner layer of pith – this wouldn’t be the last time my taste buds would learn their limits. Changing course – unwilling to give up that fleshy, fresh morning juice – I opened my mouth as if awaiting a final drop of water from a palm frond, and squeezed the fruit from a height. The juice flew freely onto my tongue, soothing my lips, clinging to beard. Nice. Refreshed, I whipped the pith under the cherry tree, slid on my shoes and went for a run. I headed south. Uphill and down, waving to everyone, saying morning. The good-humour man, smiling at children on their way to school, smelling smells, new sights, new sounds, greener greens, buildings in progress, sagging fruit trees. I dodged dogs, hit trails, went too far, turned around, backed back, then headed home.
When I left, it was still cool. As I returned, the sun had already re-claimed the grapefruit juice I spilled on the banister, and I longed for an icy bath. I was hungry. Back in Cologne, there were a dozen cafes and supermarkets to raid; but, here – in the countryside – where in fact, I wanted to be – I had to wait. So, handle it. Just, I didn’t quite know how, nor where my father was or when he was planning to return. At the time, he ran the area’s first newspaper, the Moruga Chronicle, and was always on the run. I decided to try my luck.
As if on queue, I heard a muted, rhythmic clatter approaching from downstairs, around the corner. My name again. This time sweeter, in bloom. Her voice framed the island and the Caribbean brush-stroked her voice. When harmony first enters your life. My grand Aunty Eileen – pre-Greek Hélène, the goddess of vegetation. I muddled over to the banister to watch my goddess approach in her finely embroidered, West African textiles. They were draped around her waist and over her shoulders in the Persian, Ethiopian manner. She carried a tray. On its surface was a small, porcelain plate decorated with indigo flourishes. Balancing itself on the plate, was a disproportionately large wedge of coconut bake ― coconut bread or roast bake, a local favourite ― and a ramekin of guava jam. An enamel cup of the same ilk, perched on a saucer next to the spread. A pitched lid protected the contents – my curiosity grew. I imagined her mixing ingredients into the curing potions and elixirs Moruga was known for. …She reached the stairs. Some excitement grew among the fevergrass and dasheen bush along the drain. Aromas, strangely familiar – like private spirits dancing, whispering secrets of heritage and healing into my nostrils – were shifting their weight toward me, in flux, coalescing into a darker something. This woman. My Aunty. “Oh, Aunty!” Snapping out of the trance, I jolted down to meet her. She was older; therefore, intervals between each clatter lengthened with each step. I lifted the tray gently. She was grateful and joined me the rest of the way. I thanked her deeply, almost bowing. She turned to me and smiled, “Try it. Leh meh know wha yuh tink.” And spirited off as regally as she’d come.
By this point, I was salivating. What was this mystic brew beneath this aging lid? My hunger, though, let my curiosity go; and it flew off, disappearing into the upper canopy. I picked up the bake. Studied it this time. I felt the warm breath of an ancient mud oven on my fingertips. I took a bite. Then another. And another. Delirious. Both overjoyed and distraught. Distraught at the notion that this… this had been kept from me all these years. This fireside roast had the type of crust that initially, would shatter, then fold into the palate. A warm sensation moved from incisor to gum; the bake’s inner space. Well insulated, it had the texture of what an American biscuit could only dream of if it were to meet and mate with a coconut sponge cake in a sauna. And the guava jam! The two played my senses against each other. Speechless. Clearly. I took a couple more mouthfuls.
From somewhere in the canopy, my old curiosity swooped down and landed on my shoulder. We took a deep breath together and sat along the banister. The sun, still holding back for the right moment, hid behind the mango and cherry trees. The breeze still wandered about aimlessly, searching from one branch to another, following a semp, then a kiskadee, and finally settling dejectedly beneath a flap of newspaper under the stairs. I heard a pair of toucans greeting each other. Their distant calls promptly interrupted by a herd of deranged macaws barking on the horizon. I let a tube of sunlight warm my forearm. A sweet spot, the moment was here. I tilted the lid, craning my head in unison to meet the escaping fumes.
They washed over me like a second wind; a pure chocolate gust – a wall of pleasure, like cabin doors opening in Tobago. The wave swept my face away, blew open my pores, pitched eyebrows and rocked my head back. Whoa! I mimed for the cup. Missing it, I gazed down and grasped the handle. I took a sip. Wow. Took a gulp. I was gone. Notes floated in like a supple, Harmon mute from a third-floor window on a quiet night, while walking on a quiet street in an otherwise unquiet city.
From its depths, in a heated state, arousal surfaces. And things were heating up. Half a cup now. I was new. Baptised in a chocolate sea. It drank me. I saw everything: my grandma pounding chocolate in front of her mother. Her mother throwing in spices. Grating in tonka. I heard the horn of Papa Bois – the protector of the forest – and Pa Ben urging children to bring home the cocoa beans from the bush after sucking them or else… “Papa Bois will chase yuh in d’bush.” We ran and sang. I was there, among them. I entered in an agouti impulse to plant bean, and pounced the ground securing my treasure. I shed my shell, broke through the forest floor, sprouted into tree, low canopy, bearing season after season, out of nipple, varicoloured fruit came. Then the hands of Saga George and Aunty Lucille merged into one, my own. Gather the pods and samblé them up, they did. I began to sweat. Meggi – my father’s boyhood donkey – carried me on his back to my new home, a wooden box; my roof, jute and fig leaf. Here I could ferment in peace before retiring to a cocoa house for some days. Bass and shak shak and djembe and iron, a thousand feet came out to dance cocoa; freeing me at last, to wine on waist and feather.
The trading wind and morning dew formed a cloud above my beanhead, to the South. It slid in, blocking the sun. The sun then, lined the cloud, warming it. We cooled. The cloud broke behind my eyes. Tears flowed. I sat there, dazed, behind myself. Behind my family. Behind the house. Behind Moruga.
Nearly an hour passed as I sat there materialising in the mango shade. Resurfacing, I found an empty cup resting alongside remains of my breakfast. I’d forgotten about the bake and the guava. I wasn’t hungry. The ants were. Obviously. They’d been busy while I was out. I dusted them off and finished my meal. The final bite with much fanfare.
Upon returning the tray, I called out, half-jokingly, “Aunty! What’d you put in there?” Her lips pressed together. The corners of her mouth curled inwards, raising a pair of glowing, umber cheekbones. “You mean the chocolate?” she asked, in her lofty manner. We laughed together for a second until the sea of laughter calmed, and retreated into where or whatever it came from. “Just cocoa, dear. And a little spice.” She paused, laying on me the most delicate smile anyone could ever lay on any other.
“You’re home now.”
My great-great grandmother, Jane, her three sisters and her young son, Bennett, my great- grandfather, drifted in a dugout canoe – hand-carved, out of a single tree trunk – from Carriacou, Grenada to Trinidad. The journey was a challenge, to say the least; but, they all survived. Bennet grew up in Moruga, worked the land and sea. He met Daisy, my great-grandmother. They built a home together, a foundation for their children. Ma Daisy was a poet in every way, and Pa Ben always returned home from a day’s work with a sack full of fresh fruit: paw paw, pomme cethere, yam and cassava. They would take the broken beans from botched cocoa dances and pound them in West African style mortars, for chocolate Sunday mornings.
For twenty-five years, I’d wandered the Earth without them; yet, in that sweet spot of time between dawn and day in the mango shade, I rediscovered my roots dangling from the crown of my head, growing slowly, all along, toward the lush life of our ancestral soil.
I am, we are a mangrove and we have the world to share.