I grew up in mountain and coastal villages on the beautiful island of Jamaica. Mondays to Fridays, we got up early and walked the mile or two to school. There were three ways to get there. The shortest way involved hiking through the woods, crossing a stream, and climbing up a steep hill. Children on our street walked together and we knew where to meet each other along the different routes.
This was the time before cellphones. In fact, I’m not sure we had our landline yet. So, when we received news of anything, it was often from someone travelling on foot.
The Unexpected Messenger
One weekend afternoon, while we played in the yard, someone came calling for my grandmother. As most children know, the best gossip always came from the adults, so we cocked our ears to hear what was afoot.
*** “One house a-burn down!” the messenger exclaimed. “Me going ’round there now. You a-come?”
My grandmother looked back at us children and weighed her options. I must have been six or so at the time. My aunt—my grandmother’s youngest—was only a few months older than me. My little cousin was five years our junior, which would have made him a toddler. We tried to look as eager as possible without letting on that we had been eavesdropping.
We had never seen a house burn to the ground and the idea was as fascinating as it was tragic. Grandma was not one to miss it either, so she decided we should go.
A House on Fire
The house was almost directly across from our school, so we took the shortcut and hurried on foot. I don’t remember the walk to the house, but I remember setting eyes on it for the first time.
We had no fire station in the community and the closest one was in Montego Bay, which was roughly an hour down the mountain. In short, no help would come anytime soon. So, the neighbours had taken matters into their own hands.
People battled the blaze with their little hoses and buckets of water. Their efforts prevented the fire from spreading to neighbouring houses, while the owners fretted with their hearts in their throats.
In time, the flames had died down and the emergency had passed. Now, people turned their attention toward determining the source of the fire.
The Alleged Arsonist
Just outside the rubble, a little girl sat quietly. She could not have been much older than us—if at all. Yet, I could not remember ever seeing her at our school. Her silence was what struck me most. She made no attempt to defend herself.
Her expression has also stayed with me—two and a half decades later. Her big brown eyes looked at the adults around her. They were not defiant and they did not ask for pity or help. It was almost as if she had resolved herself to whatever would happen and was merely waiting to see what the outcome would be.
In stark contrast to her silence and self-possession, the adults around shouted and cursed and accused. I don’t recall anyone making threats, but they were only a few breaths away.
During the exchange, I learned that she was not the biological child of the family. She was either adopted, a foster child, or a child they had taken in. I had an adopted family member and knew from firsthand observation how mistreated these children often were—how they always took second place to the “real” children of the household.
I now know many adopted children whose parents love them intensely and truly, but I had only my cousin as a reference and it was enough for me to empathise with her. I resolved that if she had set the house on fire, maybe it was not without provocation.
“Do you really think she did it, Mama?” I asked my grandma.
She considered it for a moment and shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Years later, people began to speculate that it was not the child at all. Instead, they suspected an individual the family had owed money to.
An Unforgotten Memory
Within a month of the incident, the burned house and the young girl was forgotten in the community. The family moved and I never heard of her or them again. Every so often, I would ask what had become of her, but no one seemed to know.
Yet, she has haunted my memory for years.
When I, too, found myself the accused demon spawn among my paternal relations, I thought of her. I thought of her while I sat quietly—just as she had—listening to insults heaped at my feet because I wanted to go home to the grandmother I had been forcefully taken from.
This was also the moment where I understood that little girl. But, unlike her, I had not resolved myself to that Fate. I had made it clear I would return to my grandmother whether I was allowed to or not and the fuss they were making served no purpose but to fuel a false sense of absolving themselves.
I think of her when pro-choice people argue that unwanted children can simply be pushed into foster care where millions of mythical families are waiting eagerly to take them home. I thought of her when I learned that Texas’s asinine abortion law had been allowed to stand.
I thought of her when my grandmother showed me a picture of the recently completed fire station in Montego Bay. We joked about the excessive size of the fire department and the fact that, after all these years, we still don’t have one in the little old mountain town my family has called home for six generations.
“Do you remember that fire near the school? And not a fire truck in sight!”
My grandmother laughed and assured me she did, in fact, remember that incident.
“Whatever happened to that little girl in the fire?”
She doesn’t know—and sometimes, I fear that in this great big world, no one knows what happened to that little girl.
***The Jamaican Patois used in this article has been Anglicized to make it understandable to English speakers.