plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One

Bogue Heights


by Safiya Sinclair

El Porvenir by David Giacomelli

As children we thought it was divine—fitted with all the things children could want—a secret kingdom populated with devoted subjects, bowing trees whose acquiescence made for excellent sport: for climbing and fencing, or exacting taxes in the form of fruits. In summer the Bombay mangoes grew bigger than all our fists put together, pregnant with liquid gold that trickled down our arms, as we lay like lizards, fat with riches, in the shade of our palm tree palanquin.

The gate to our kingdom was rusted copper, painted over white, flanked all around by a flush field of tall grass. At noon, when the sun burned so bright it made us drunk, that field of itchy St. Augustine grass was a noisy court, abuzz with all the intrigues of cross-pollination. Here, I would come conquering with a crocus-branch net to capture the endangered Swallowtail butterflies, which made the best ladies-in-waiting. I would pin them to my dresses of yellow poplin and white cotton, right at the place I thought my heart must be. My brother preferred a less delicate violence, as I came to learn boys often do, and ransacked the hives of bees and wasps with fire. After the war of stings had cleared we would watch curiously as the abandoned larvae made the popping sounds of the helpless; soft little popcorn noises which satisfied me. At night I would turn the butterfly brooches about in my hand, recalling the little explosions, wracked with guilt.

By morning I was again a ruthless regent, busying myself with the tasks of the day. We pitched a hammock next to the little dais we had built from trees and the feeble branches of avocado saplings we felled easily on our expeditions. We liked the trees that ripped like flesh and limbs, and the spines of bruised oleanders, which we especially enjoyed colonizing because they cried thick, milky tears that made our fingers satisfyingly sticky. We took turns at monarchy and sat sprawled lazily on the dais, giving orders as any good monarch would. My sister and I darned a lovely crown of marigolds my brother refused to wear, ripping instead an arm’s length of cerasee vine and knotting it into a headpiece. When he found the horned skull of a bull on the dark outskirts of the kingdom, he decided his would be a Viking rule. There was a dried-up stream, a rock-gully moat that guarded our kingdom for acres, in which we lay and created little songs about swimming. Here I would look into the face of the night and imagine clues of the future in the ancient fecundity of the western zodiac.

We would climb an exposed pipe by our kitchen window to the roof, and if you stood long enough at the turret tops overlooking the entire city at the exact spot where the hot breeze lifted the waves of the Caribbean Sea, you felt as if you could really own the world. We practiced little speeches with both arms outstretched, reciting poetry to the wind. It was here I first knew that I could love a girl as well as a boy, when Petunia’s lips met mine and I floated out to the gulfstream’s salt-tunnel, where the sighs of the city met the dreams of the sea. She was only a visitor to our kingdom, and my siblings did not take the infiltration well. Petunia, unremarkable and without skill, could not speak the sacred Sinclair tongue, and was designated the Gamekeeper—an empty title my brother had devised to keep us amused. “Gamekeeper” was really a game that involved tricking the titleholder into believing that all suggestions of hide-and-seek were always her idea. It was during one of these games, when we both chose the same hiding place, that she asked me to kiss her.

“No,” I said.

“Have you ever done it before?” Her eyes gleamed wet as she reached out to touch me, trembling.

“Of course,” I lied. My face burned red-hot.

“Well—.” Then I grabbed her by the blouse and kissed her. Strange warmth pinched and shuddered through me. When I heard my sister’s pattering feet, I pushed her away. It was here a tongue first forked with cowardice: that night I told my mother Petunia had kissed me and put her hands down my underwear, and we never saw her again. But she was just the Gamekeeper. She broke the rules.

By the moss-covered steps we always met our doom. Shaded by the awning of our house, it was always cool and slippery enough to lose a tooth upon. Here lived things born out of shadow—where I first saw the skin of my knee give way and felt strange in the new way my legs began to betray me. You never notice you’ve woken up lanky and death-prone until you’ve seen blood dark as lignum vitae bark trickle down your foot. Or the way a cut never truly hurts until you see it bleed. At these steps I broke the bone in my wedding-ring finger and registered a secret terror when my grandmother wondered aloud if that was good or bad luck. That was an old wives’ tale Jamaica hadn’t yet invented.

On the shadow-steps cut from pure limestone, my brother took to playing with the scissors. He had a long pair, rusted over by the sea, which he tied on his belt like a sword: useful for cutting oleanders, or carving his name in the limestone. Our father was making him grow his hair out, a command that left him darkening at the brow, kicking stones. He was a king, after all. One afternoon, in a wild-eyed rage, he hacked at the thick tufts of hair with the old scissors. He only cleared the left side before our mother heard our screams and came to subdue him. After that we began to notice that his hair grew slower on the left side, lopsidedly—even now.

My sister would sit at the steps in the midst of summer and pick at the things that lived in the crevices. Once she decided to give it a taste and swallowed half a millipede. Her little mouth frothed over yellow with the half-dead, still-shimmying bug, smiling unwittingly as we all screamed with terror. My mother died in waves. Certainly my sister was dead, keeled right over with the biggest bug-black, yellow-froth smile of the littlest conquistador this side of Bogue Heights. We learnt that millipedes aren’t fatal and that three-year-olds are resilient.

At these steps I would sit, wondering what ghost had come upon me, as I pulled at the petals of Spanish needles and asked if a certain boy loved me or not, hiding away in my blue gabardine and plaid uniform to cry about things outside of the monarchy—secret things where there were no secrets before—always remembering the hope I had once felt looking into the face of the stars when I thought I could pick out a future there. Now the future was a strange-bodied arbiter of fear.  I dreamt Petunia was a Swallowtail I had pinned to my sleeve, heard her wet, trembling noises as I impaled her body again and again. For months I couldn’t bend my ring finger, foreboding—dead bone, dead hair, dead skin—all parts of a self left behind.

Sometimes I could feel my sister’s eyes peeking through the window when I sat there in contemplation; how like a shy animal she would slowly come with the crown of marigolds, breaking into a smile. Sometimes I would throw off the shroud and clap little sea-songs in a circle with the people I loved. My mother would say, “These are the songs first sung to us by the sea, when our fishermen returned safely to shore in the moonlight.” In this place, there were many ways to find the things we thought we’d lost.

This was the place we all came alive. When heaviness hangs about me, I close my eyes to find myself, and here I return—to the warm evening when giggling king and queens loosened the threads of light to dress themselves, sharp little layabouts lost in the tall grass, itching with sweat beneath the wide white sky of home.

About the Author


Safiya Sinclair

Bennington College

Safiya Sinclair is a senior concentrating in literature at Bennington College, where she twice received the Rosalie Gittings Drexel ’47 Scholarship for outstanding achievement in poetry. She has previously published work in the Caribbean publications The Jamaica Observer Literary Arts Magazine, Bearing Witness 2003: A Collection of the Year's Best Fiction and Poetry, and the international anthology, Kunapipi: A Journal of Post-Colonial Literature. She is currently working on her senior thesis, “Sehnsucht, St. James,” a collection of poetry and prose.