The following is an excerpt from Maisy Card's book These Ghosts Are Family, a transporting debut novel that reveals the ways in which a Jamaican family forms and fractures over generations. Maisy Card holds an MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College and is a public librarian. Her writing has appeared in Lenny Letter, School Library Journal, Agni, Sycamore Review, Liars’ League NYC, and Ampersand Review.
Independence City, 1999
There were only four bedrooms in the house, so we visitors had to triple up in beds. Those on the outer edges slept lightly, on our sides, afraid of rolling off during the night. Those in the middle slept on our backs, afraid to spoon with relatives we hadn’t seen in years. We crossed our arms over our chests like dead pharaohs and tried to keep our elbows out of the way. Vera had been dead for five days by the time we arrived, and it would be four more days until her Nine Night, five until her funeral. It was Bernard, the yard boy who’d always followed behind Vera like a stray dog, who borrowed blankets from the neighbors to make the rest of us pallets on the floor.
None of us had come to see Vera in the five years she spent dying at home, but it seemed as if everyone she had ever passed on the street had flown to Jamaica in the days before her funeral. It was Bernard who borrowed Vincent’s car and made a dozen trips in one day, shuttling us between Manley Airport and Independence City.
It soon became impossible to move about the house without tripping over people. Geraldine, who’d been Vera’s “helper,” slept on the veranda in a mosquito-net tent Bernard made her, while Vera’s three dogs kept watch outside.
In the aftermath of Vera’s death, it had become clear to Bernard that he was property that Vera’s children, Irene and Vincent, had no wish to inherit.
“You know, Bernard, in Egypt, when the pharaoh dead, the royal servant them did bury with them master,” Vincent had said over breakfast, laughing. Bernard listened as Vincent shared the details of Vera’s will with the visitors, while he helped Geraldine serve them food.
He noticed Vincent had started wearing a pair of oversized reading glasses, showing off because he’d sold Vera’s family jewelry, before she was even dead, to enroll at the University of the West Indies. He was proud of himself for no longer being a 29-year-old man living at home with his mother, even though it was only her death that had changed that setup. The house was his now. Irene had moved with her two kids to the U.S. the year before. Vincent was free to keep the house and start his own family, or if he sold, he and Irene would split the money, and he could move to New York, as he’d always dreamed.
Vincent’s words haunted Bernard. He had spent the last few days mourning Vera so deeply it had not occurred to him to have concern for himself. But that morning, after breakfast, while making his fourth trip from the airport, Bernard had driven by a skeletal man with matted dreadlocks, wading through a polluted portion of the Kingston Harbour, looking into the reddish-brown water, trying to catch fish with his bare hands. Something came over Bernard—his future, to be exact—and he had pulled off the road to get a closer look, leaving Irene and her kids sweating in the backseat of the car, spooked and confused. Exactly how he felt too.
Later that night, as he moved about the house making sure each visitor had somewhere to sleep, he wondered how Vera could have forsaken him so thoroughly. There was no mention of Bernard in her will. Though he never expected to get the house itself, of course, he thought he deserved something for building a part of it—when Vera decided a proper lady must have a guest room—with his own hands. Where would he go if Vincent sold the house? The more he thought about it, the more he could feel his throat constricting slowly, as if all of the air within the house had followed Vera. It was impossible, he decided. The woman he’d known for 30 years loved him too much to let her children cast him aside.
Bernard had spent the entire day picturing Vera using the last of her earthly strength to hide something special for him, until imagining was not enough—he decided to take matters into his own hands. Since no one would sleep in a dead woman’s room, especially one not yet buried, Bernard knew he would have Vera’s room to himself. If she left something for him, he would find it. He waited until the visitors and the family were asleep, lest they think he was in there to steal rather than to recover what was rightfully his.
That night, as we listened from our temporary beds to the sound of the yard boy padlocking the door to the burglar bars enclosing the front of the house, we remembered why we’d left—to escape the feeling of living under siege. You had to coat your skin in repellant, hide behind a net from the mosquitoes, and lock your family inside a cage each night. No one had missed the clang of the metal grillwork or the crunch of the padlock, and the three successive snaps from the bolts on your front door. And the weather in September, a monsoon one minute, unbearably humid and hot the next. A cold breeze would deliver a sharp chill up your spine every now and then but still brought no relief. There was no way to escape the dampness, heat, and mold so bent on turning your white walls green. We fanned ourselves futilely and fell asleep longing for the air-conditioning we’d left behind.
When she was alive, Vera had never let Bernard enter her room, so he didn’t move at first; he stood frozen in the doorway, imagining her sitting up in her deathbed, screaming at him to get out. When Vera wanted him, she preferred he bent her over the kitchen counter when the children were at school, or they retreated to his mattress in the shed once she’d put the kids to sleep. It became trickier when they grew older, but they had managed to find places until Vera became bedridden.
He found only the bare mattress, not an updated copy of her will, not a note scribbled in haste on her deathbed, or a page torn from her diary—nothing that would make people believe that Vera loved him.
But her own bed had always been off-limits, so when he walked over and ran his fingers along the white sheets, his heart raced like he was trespassing, getting away with a transgression he would not have dared attempt had she been alive. He knew these sheets weren’t the ones she died on—Geraldine would have changed them by now—but he stripped them off anyway, praying to find a miracle underneath. He found only the bare mattress, not an updated copy of her will, not a note scribbled in haste on her deathbed, or a page torn from her diary—nothing that would make people believe that Vera loved him. Nothing to suggest that she’d thought of him in the end.
The sight of Vera’s sheets lying in an untidy pile on the floor gave him a moment of satisfaction. She was not here to tell him that her things were too pristine for his touch. He pulled off her pillow- cases and added them to the pile. He overturned her mattress and left it facedown on the floor. He almost missed the faded envelope, suddenly preoccupied with upending the too-neat room. The fragile paper inside had yellowed with age:
It is with the deepest of regrets that I inform you that on Monday, September 14, 1970, Mr. Abel Joseph Paisley, who was in my employ aboard the Sovereign of the Seas II, met with an unfortunate accident during the execution of his duties, rendering him deceased . . .
Enraged, Bernard tore it to pieces. He didn’t want to think about what it meant that this letter was preserved under her mattress all those years. That she never stopped thinking about Abel, her husband almost thirty years dead. He was more to her than Abel, he told himself; while Abel left her, then widowed her, Bernard spent the next thirty years with his life revolving around Vera’s whims.
He collapsed on the pile of linens and let himself remember their first night together. He was sixteen and had worked for Vera for two months; Vera was thirty-five and was drowning under the weight of keeping a house and tending two small children. When she hired Bernard, she let him sleep in the shed that had belonged to another yard boy who Abel had let go just before leaving for England.
Bernard had been raised by his grandparents in Harold Town. When his grandfather died, his grandmother sent him to look for work in the city. He was not happy or unhappy—happiness had never been one of his pursuits—but he found working for Vera rather than farming with his grandfather for his own survival to be boring. There were stretches of time where he just waited for her to order him to do something.
Everything changed the night of the hurricane. Vera had let him sleep in the house in the spare bed in Vincent’s room, instead of the fragile shed in the backyard where he normally slept. Vincent was just an infant in his crib and Abel was in England, just six months away from having a container of ship anchors fall on his head. Bernard remembered feeling colder than he had when he slept out back. The electricity had already gone out and then the last candle too. He lay in bed shivering, waiting for the storm to pass. He should have felt at rest indoors—it was the softest mattress he had ever felt—but instead he lay there in the dark night wide-awake, listening to the wind.
Suddenly, there was a pressure on his chest. He felt a person, a woman—he could tell by her smell and the feel of her legs as she settled on him—straddling his chest. He wondered at first if she was sleepwalking, but then she leaned forward, as if so that he could see that the whites of her eyes were focused on his in the dark. She ran her fingernails across his bare chest, and he felt a charge, a rush that coursed through every cell in his body. With his arousal came a sense of terror. He had never been with a woman before. He had never felt his heart beat that fast, and he both feared and welcomed what she would do next. He remembered wondering if he was in the midst of a nightmare; Vera was behaving like the witch in one of those Ol’ Hige stories, getting ready to drink his blood or drain his body’s last breath. But his nightmares had never brought him this kind of pleasure.
The next morning Vera behaved as if nothing had happened. At first light, she ordered him to clear the debris and the fallen branches out of her yard, later scolding him for working too slowly. He had been too distracted and upset to work, suddenly doubting that the best night of his life had really happened at all.
Vera came again four nights later. This time slinking into his shed as if she retired to such pitiable lodgings every night. From that point on, they had sex several nights a week for almost twenty-five years, until their nights together became rare as Vera’s health declined. He remembers on their last night together, she had gotten so thin that as she lay beneath him he was conscious of her bones pressing into his skin. She was still and silent, and he felt so guilty as he heard a moan of pleasure erupt from his mouth that he stopped suddenly and couldn’t finish.
Bernard felt as if he might now see Vera’s silhouette, the phantom version of her that appeared that night, in the dark, as he got down and crawled on his belly, feeling underneath her bed for something. When he found nothing, he lay there on his back for a moment, staring at the underside of her box spring, exhausted, and wondering if this was what Vera was seeing too. Was this what Vera was feeling? But, of course, she felt nothing; she saw nothing. Vera was dead, and he would have to stop thinking about her. He must only think about how he would survive if he left this house. Bernard was so still and quiet, lying in his imaginary coffin, he could hear the chorus of outrage from the visitors.
What was the yard boy doing creeping into Vera’s room at this hour? No matter if we were Vera’s grandnieces or grandnephews, her uncle’s cousin by marriage, her son’s school friend’s brother, we all had more claim to Vera’s room than Bernard. Though none of us would go near it, we cringed at the thought of the yard boy with his ashy feet and thick yellow toenails desecrating the dead woman’s bed.
He was quick and not gentle as he combed through everything that Vera had held valuable during her life, trying to find some trace of himself among them.
The poor had only just begun rising up when we’d left, but now we could see that things would never go back to the way they were before. We didn’t just have to fear that some glassy-eyed nobody would climb in one night through our windows, or that Melva in the kitchen was busy adding ground glass to all of our dinners, while Simone in the washroom was stealing our clothes and parading around her government yard, getting shit all over our going-out shoes. Remember the story of the yard boy cutting off the baby’s head to spite his employer? It had done us in. That had been the last straw. We had liquidated our assets and left for the first country that would give us visas. Now we were vindicated; we were right. For who could live in this mad country, where servants were so shameless they would riffle through a dead woman’s things before we’d had time to put her in the ground? So at last, we lay back and turned away in our beds. Let Vera’s children deal with her uppity help. In ancient Egypt, the servants would be buried with their masters.
They would not understand until Bernard showed them, until he gave them proof that Vera had loved him. He had to keep looking. He crawled out from underneath her bed and trained his eye on her wooden wardrobe, which was so tall it had just barely fit in her room and, in fact, had left a line scar across the ceiling where they had forced it in. Vera had bragged that it had belonged to her great-grandfather, a British lord, and had been his personal wardrobe in the master bedroom of the sugar plantation’s great house. Her grandfather first inherited it and willed it to her, because of all the grandchildren from his line of illegitimate brown descendants, she was his favorite; her bone structure, if not her color, reminded him of his own mother’s.
Bernard opened the wooden doors and began pulling out each dress from its hanger. They were silk and lace, dresses from another generation, a life of colonial comfort that Vera was raised in but had lost once she married Abel. She even had a fur coat in a box, which made Bernard laugh out loud as he threw it on the floor. He was quick and not gentle as he combed through everything that Vera had held valuable during her life, trying to find some trace of himself among them.
Three little girls got out of their pallets and tiptoed to Vera’s door. We told them not to go in there. We told them Vera was dead and had turned into a duppy until they buried her. We explained it takes nine nights for the spirit to let go, and Vera had only been dead five days. We would send Vera off in four more, on the night before the funeral, when we’d remove her mattress and her duppy would leave to find its eternal resting place. Until then, Vera’s duppy still slept in her bed. But the girls noticed the man was in there with her. He wasn’t afraid. We told them to move away from there and mind their business, but instead they pressed their ears to the door because they wanted to hear the duppy talk to the man. They had so many questions: Was he her husband? Would he smooch with the duppy? How did that work when her face was invisible?
From These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card. Copyright © 2020 by Maisy Card. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster.