the girl in the outhouse

IMG_1767 copyI was born on an oddly shaped island just below Cuba. Places like Kingston, Montego Bay and St. Ann are reminders of a colonized space that begs to forget its past. I couldn’t forget, but I didn’t want to remember either. I instead wanted to save memories of my uncle and our moments in the outhouse at twilight. He on the right hole, me on the left hanging on for dear life, because children bigger than me had fallen in and drowned in urine and feces. I couldn’t imagine drowning  in that deep dark hole, alone, amidst the waste of us, mixed together closer than we could be as a family. But my uncle and I were close. We talked of many things as we peed and moved our bowels.  To this day he is still the man who reminds me that I can be safe with a man, even in a place where there was no electricity to light my way to safety, no running water to wash away the fear of darkness.

“Marie,” he would say, “what you believe you want to be when you get big?”

Wasn’t I already big? I thought at the time. Big enough to sit on the grown-up outhouse hole? Big enough to know about anger and darkness? I was almost eleven. I was big, bigger than my older sister Gem who still played with skinny white dolls with blonde hair on the veranda. I was big enough to bravely look in the hole one day. But it was too deep and dark. I couldn’t see the lives that intermixed, those lives slowly rising over the years, filling, filling, until we reached the top, overflowing with everything wrong with our family, overflowing until Gem’s doll surfaced after years of disappearance.

“I loved that doll,” Gem would one day say. “How it get in there?”

The doll didn’t look like us. It made me feel ugly and afraid of the many faces that passed along the dirt road.  I remember seeing the morphing faces of children inside the hole, brown girls with blonde hair, all lost in a time long gone, a time that didn’t admire their beauty and brown skin. They all looked like me and dreamed like me. They were free of this world now and the need to be something other than self. I couldn’t remember if I felt free then. Maybe I did. Or maybe freedom was a dream. As the years went by the days of feeling free diminished. I began to see the chains of our existence. My uncle never asked me again what I wanted to be. He became too busy trying to figure out what he wanted to be. Years later he would continue to search, never really finding what he wanted to be when he grew up. He grew up nonetheless, his chains forever holding him in place. Dreams of planting mahogany trees in Stonehenge kept him alive. But they were only dreams, the kind that would never manifest.

I became a painter. I realized my desire many years after my uncle’s probing question and lost dreams. I struggled with my art and trying to find my muse. Then one day I decided to paint my childhood and my days in the outhouse. I painted the joy of my memories and the despair I imagined those who were swallowed by the vast and deep hole experienced. I painted families packed tight in an outhouse, the release of wasted memories, the stink of their lives floating around them, reminding them of how their lives meshed, solidifying in one moment, liquefying in the next. It became grotesque and beautiful all at once. The people, the canvas, the colors and images now sit on a wall unmoved, but moving those who can remember their story. It takes them back in time, to a moment when they were eleven years old and big.

None of us remember the first colonizers. It was long before our time. But their ghosts remain, walking among the living. They possess us with their language, religion and family structure. The outhouse is the product of this possession filled with mixed up realities and beliefs. Deep in the holes sit the demons that need to be exorcised and the children who need to be saved. I will continue to paint their story and use my canvases like steps of a ladder, so the children may climb out, inch by inch, until the sun is all there is, no outhouse, no wood, no waste, just sun and sky.

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